Johnnie L. Smith, a retired social worker who was an advocate for keeping families together, died Friday of complications from heart disease and lupus at Johns Hopkins Hospital. The Morgan Park resident was 65.
She retired two years ago as director of the African American Family Services Consortium, a division of Associated Black Charities in the Mount Vernon section of downtown Baltimore.
Born Johnnie Lowry in York, S.C., she attended South Carolina public schools and earned a bachelor's degree in English from what is now Morgan State University. She earned a master's degree with honors in social work from Howard University in 1968.
She began a 33-year career in 1961 with what was then Baltimore's Department of Public Welfare as a public assistance case worker. She went on to supervise other social workers and became manager of the city's Govans-Waverly social services center in the 4600 block of York Road.
"She was a warm, caring, considerate person. She was the epitome of what a true social worker is," said Sue Fitzsimmons, a co-worker. "She spent her entire career caring about Baltimore families and children. She was also a methodical person. She thought things through clearly. I learned how to write because of her."
"Johnnie was the most passionate individual about the rights of children, youths and families," said Donna Jones Stanley, executive director of Associated Black Charities. "She knew more about kinship care -- how families operate -- and what they need to thrive. She was such a gentle soul, but she had power when speaking about families."
Before her retirement in 1994, she was a regional chief in the city Department of Social Services. She then set up the Family Services Consortium and worked until bad health forced her to step down two years ago.
"I considered her to be a lady of grace," said Sister Melvina Bennett of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, who works at Gorsuch Avenue's Marian House, where Mrs. Smith had been a volunteer. "She was an unsung hero, so low key. She was a woman who believed in justice and fairness, which she delivered with gentleness and kindness."
In recognition of her years of work with children, she was given the University of Maryland School of Social Work's Louise Rainer Makofsky Memorial Award in 1998. The award is named for the founder of the Maryland Food Committee.
A former president of the National Association of Black Social Workers, Mrs. Smith also was formerly a co-chairwoman of the National Comprehensive Black Child and Family Committee. She also trained personnel for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Maryland.
She was a field instructor for Howard University social work students and a past president of the Baltimore chapter of the Howard University School of Social Work Alumni Association.
Family members said she relaxed by traveling or using her sewing machine.
"It was nothing for her to start a pattern at 9 at night and have a new outfit ready in the morning," said her son William Reginald Smith of Oakland, Calif.
Services will begin with a wake at 10:30 a.m. today at Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, 6000 Radecke Ave., where she was a member.
Other survivors include sons Gerald Maurice Smith of Atlanta and Derek Leroy Smith of Baltimore; a daughter, Kelley Narissa Smith of Baltimore; her mother, Carrie Bell Lowry of Baltimore; three brothers, James Edward Lowry of Baltimore, Michael Anthony Lowry of Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and Gregory Lowry of Riverside, Calif.; a sister, Melinda McLean of Baltimore; nine grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter. Her marriage ended in divorce.