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Patrick C. Johns, known as the 'Master of Disaster,' dies

'Pat' Johns, a Catholic Relief Services worker, became known as the 'Master of Disaster.'

Patrick C. Johns, a legendary Catholic Relief Services worker whose expertise as director of emergency operations earned him the title of "Master of Disaster," died Sept. 14 of kidney and heart failure at the Johns Hopkins Hospital.

The Severna Park resident was 66.

"Pat was a most admired disaster specialist. He was a rough cut type of guy but he got things done. He could do anything that he set his mind to and did this over and over again," said Ambassador Ken F. Hackett, former president of Catholic Relief Services, who is now U.S. ambassador to the Vatican.

"He was rough and tumble, not in a football sort of way, but was a quiet guy who always had time for everybody no matter what was going on around him," said Ambassador Hackett.

"Pat was a legend," said Sean Callahan, chief operating officer for CRS, in a statement announcing Mr. Johns' death. "Catholic Relief Services is deeply indebted to a man who gave his life to the services of those in desperate need in the most dangerous places on our planet."

For more than three decades, there was never a major or minor disaster that did not see Mr. Johns on the ground, bringing his organizational skills and sense of hope to victims of some of the world's major humanitarian emergencies.

They ranged from the killing fields of Cambodia, the Ethiopian famine, the Rwanda genocide, Somalia, the Asian tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, the 2010 Haiti earthquake, and less-remembered disasters.

"He lived through war, famine, natural disasters and incredible human suffering," said Mr. Callahan.

The son of Howard Johns, president of the Milbrook Newark Bank, and Genevieve Johns, a nurse, Patrick Charles Johns was born in Aurora, Ill., and raised in Plano, Ill.

After graduating in 1967 from Marmion Academy, Mr. Johns earned a bachelor's degree in 1971 in political science and history from Marquette University in Milwaukee.

After graduating from college, he worked for several years for his father's bank but was restless and wanted to do something else with his life. He called his family priest, who in turn called Catholic Relief Services, and within a week, he had a new job.

During his first posting to Cambodia in 1974, he met and fell in love with Cristina "Sunny" Giron, whom he married in 1975 in Thailand.

His first assignment was not without serious challenges, as the Khmer Rouge army was making its way to the capital of Phnom Penh, into which 1.5 million refugees had jammed seeking a safe haven from the war.

Then Khmer Rouge then commenced shelling the city.

Mr. Johns and his coworkers were enjoying a Sunday morning cup of coffee when a rocket landed next door and destroyed the home of the director of the International Red Cross, who luckily, was not at home.

"All that day we had the shakes," Mr. Johns told Marquette Magazine in a 2014 profile. "When we went next door, we fully expected to see our neighbor and wife in pieces. ... It was war in all its ugliness. It was dangerous and exciting at the same time. "

Mr. Johns' working conditions often included working shifts of 50 hours or more, sleeping in his office, and sharing quarters with 30 or more staffers. He survived malaria, endured hot and miserable tropical weather and suffered the lack of running water.

"You're not so cognizant of time and exhaustion — it's the adrenaline pumping in your veins," he said in the Marquette interview.

In Phnom Penh, Mr. Johns, who was managing a staff of 400, was responsible for getting food and supplies to the refugees, when the Khmer Rouge cut off the supply routes to the city.

With each passing day, the situation deteriorated.

"CRS was the lifeline for those people. We were really keeping 1.5 to 2 million people alive," Mr. Johns said in the interview. "That whole experience in Cambodia really drove home my niche in life."

"During the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, where CRS maintained an office, more than a million people had been butchered by machete and the streets were filled with bodies," he explained in the Interview.

"Our first challenge was to get our people out. But as soon as we got them out, we started to plan our return," he said. "Rwanda was a turning point for our agency. It got us thinking about being more than just emergency responders to civil conflicts.

At times, Mr. Johns returned to CRS headquarters in Baltimore where he was first in the external affairs department and later as coordinator of CRS programs in Africa, but it was clearly being in the field that he most enjoyed.

Each situation that Mr. Johns faced came with its own particular set of challenges.

"I remember when Pat was asked to set up a camp in Macedonia for refugees from Kosovo in 1999," recalled Ambassador Hackett.

"It was to be a camp originally for 20,000, then it was 30,000, then 40,000 and finally two months later 60,000 refugees jammed into the camp and we called Pat 'the Mayor of Stenkovic,'" he said. "It was a 24/7 job and Pat did it for four months until he finally burned out and I had to take him out of there."

Mr. Johns realized that relief work was more than just food aid, it was about peace, social justice, development and health programs.

Francis X. "Frank" Carlin was Mr. Johns' longtime CRS boss and close friend.

"Whenever I turned over programs I always handpicked Pat, and whenever there was an emergency they always asked for Pat," said Mr. Carlin. "I think that it comes from experience and a certain comfort level. We always tend to let our work define us and that's what Pat did. People say he was born into it and he had a lot of God-given gifts."

Mr. Carlin said that it was Mr. Johns' "commitment and tenacity that was combined with an easy laid-back style" that made him a success.

"He also didn't panic and was always calm. He had a lot of street smarts, faith and hope, all which he did seamlessly. He was totally devoid of ego, which was so important," he said. "He was very neat and organized. His desk was neat. Pat was that way about everything and that played into his skill sets."

Mr. Carlin said that whenever he saw his team's spirits beginning to lag under the weight of the work he would inject some measure of humor or a joke in order to keep them going.

"I've become hardened," he said in the Marquette interview. "That's the gut-wrenching element of this work."

After the Asian tsunami swept in 2004, Mr. Johns broke the tension when he said, "I didn't just blow in with the last typhoon."

His work was primarily focused in the Aceh province in Indonesia, and as he surveyed the coast by helicopter he was shocked by the mountains of debris and floating bodies.

"The devastation reminded me of pictures of Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the atomic bomb," he recounted in the interview.

A burly man with a thick mustache, Mr. Johns — who eschewed neckties because they had no use in his opinion — never seemed to run out of energy, hope, ideas or solutions.

"Pat was a morning person and was a chain smoker and really loved coffee. He could really swallow that stuff in those reflective moments," said Mr. Carlin, who witnessed Mr. Johns pacing back and forth while he was planning his next move.

When Katrina hit New Orleans, Mr. Johns called on his old friend Mr. Carlin to accompany him to the city to help coordinate relief efforts.

"I asked him, Pat when do we go, and he replied, 'It's wheels up in three hours. I already have the tickets.' Now, I was working for Pat," said Mr. Carlin with a laugh.

Anna Schowengerdt first met Mr. Johns when she was managing a program in Iraq in 2004, and was new in her CRS career. He arrived with a stack of DVD movies for the staff's after hours enjoyment.

"The first thing he wanted to 'assess' was the emotional health and well being of me and my colleagues. He was the exact opposite of the intimidating bigwig I was expecting," said Ms. Schowengerdt, who is now director of institutional donor engagement and advancement.

"He immediately put me at ease with his affable nature, his genuine interest in us and our work, his sense of humor, his willingness to get his hands dirty in the field with us," she said. "He was a role model for me and so many other young staff."

Mr. Johns retired last year.

"A passage that author David Foster Wallace wrote reminded me of Pat," said Joseph Chamberlin, a Baltimore writer, a former CRS manager and longtime friend.

"He wrote: 'The really important freedom involves attention, awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day.' That was Pat."

Plans for a memorial service to be held at CRS headquarters in Baltimore in November are incomplete.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Johns is survived by a son, Bryan Johns of Bethesda; a brother, Michael Johns of Comstock Park, Mich.; and three sisters, Tracey Niles of Plano, Christine Kramer of Yorkville, Ill., and Stephanie Konsler of Lake Forest, Ill.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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