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Doris E. Johnson, a longtime Baltimore Public Schools educator who worked in special education, dies

Doris E. Johnson was a special education teacher at several Baltimore schools.
Doris E. Johnson was a special education teacher at several Baltimore schools.

Doris E. Johnson, a longtime Baltimore Public Schools educator whose field was special education and who had served as department head at Carver Senior High School, died of kidney disease Sunday at her East Baltimore home. She was 85.

“As a department head, the teachers loved her. She was always fair and the calmest person I’ve ever known,” said Ida W. James, who retired in 2003 from city public schools where she had been a middle school curriculum specialist at school headquarters on North Avenue. “Doris was always very friendly and approachable, and that’s why she was popular with teachers.”

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The former Doris Elomia Yarborough, daughter of Dowd Yarborough, a Bethlehem Steel Co. worker, and his wife, Annie Mae Yarborough, who cooked for the Hutzler’s department store family, was born in Spartanburg, South Carolina, and as part of the Great Migration of African Americans seeking a better life, moved first to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and then in the late 1930s to East Baltimore, where they settled in the Somerset Homes public housing.

“Tragedy struck her family in 1947 when her father, Dowd, was robbed and killed by an unknown assailant one night on his way home from work at Bethlehem Steel,” wrote her daughter, Michelle Johnson, of Boston, a former Boston Globe copy editor, in a biographical profile of her mother. “The murder was never solved.”

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“Mrs. Johnson often recounted stories of growing up in the projects near Caroline Street in a different era when residents could leave their doors unlocked and they looked out for each other’s children,” wrote Ms. Johnson, who is an associate professor in the department of journalism at Boston University. “She spoke fondly of spending time at the Chick Webb Recreation Center and recalled scraping her knees roller skating on city streets. She made lifelong friends who were neighbors in the projects.”

Marie H. Fowler, a retired city public schools teacher and former neighbor, said: “I’ve known her 80 years. She was my next-door neighbor at Somerset and we grew up together. When we were little girls we held hands and skipped down the street together.”

After graduation from Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, she earned a bachelor’s degree in education in 1964 from what is now Morgan State University, and returned there and obtained a master’s degree in 1975, also in education.

“We were students together at Morgan and during that time there was limited bus service to the campus, so we had to walk to Loch Raven Boulevard to get the bus,” Mrs. James recalled. “We would talk and talk and make plans on those walks. We confided in each other and became best friends in every sense of the word.”

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Over the years, as a special education teacher, she held positions at schools in Hampden, Sinclair Lane Elementary and Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School, until being appointed special education department head at Carver Senior High School, from which she retired in 1999.

“Doris was very smart and she loved children,” Mrs. Fowler said. “She had such a beautiful personality and was so well-liked.”

In 1955, she married Melvin Johnson, a Baltimore native who joined the Air Force and rose to the rank of staff sergeant. After serving at the National Security Agency, her husband was assigned to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, and while living there, the couple’s twins were born.

After her husband was sent to Oahu, Hawaii, in 1964, Mrs. Johnson taught middle school special education classes and attended the University of Hawaii.

Ms. Johnson recalls during the “turbulent ‘60s when college campuses were ablaze with protest,” her mother took her to a protest meeting at the University of Hawaii where she heard the “Black National Anthem, ‘Lift Every Voice,’ sung for the first time,” she wrote.

En route from Hawaii to a posting in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1969, Mrs. Johnson and her family stopped to visit friends and family in Baltimore when her husband was stricken with an aneurysm that resulted in his death.

Mrs. Johnson moved to Boston just before COVID-19 struck to live with her daughter’s family. Even though she had a successful career as an educator, she always harbored a desire to be a writer, and in particular of children’s books, and among her pastimes was joining a writers’ group at a local senior center.

She saw an ad in The Boston Globe seeking 200-word essays about life during the pandemic. The winning essays, including hers, “Black Lives in Crisis,” were published by the Boston Book Festival and featured in a display in downtown Boston. It was a dream come true.

“Can you hear me, see me, cry for me? This message is from a Black mother watching us get knocked down again. Yet, I can’t help but feel a sense of hope that there are still some people out there who care,” Mrs. Johnson wrote in the essay’s opening lines.

“We were flabbergasted and just stunned,” her daughter said in a telephone interview.

Other hobbies included scrapbooking, collecting recipes and watching what she called “her story,” “Days of Our Lives.”

Another passion was collecting shoes — she had hundreds of them — which earned her the moniker of the “Imelda Marcos” of her family, “because she never met a pair of shoes that she didn’t like,” her daughter wrote.

Her daughter said her mother was known for her “killer crabcakes,” and after moving to Boston, family friends would request that she make them, “but she complained bitterly that the crab meat there was of a lesser quality than Maryland blue crab.”

She also liked to travel.

“We traveled together and I like to drive,” Mrs. James said. “Doris didn’t like to drive, but she’d read the map. We drove up the East Coast and the Gulf Coast, and sometimes we’d get lost and I’d say, ‘What the devil? We have a full tank of gas.’”

In June, it was Mrs. Johnson’s wish to return to her Ednor Gardens home, where she could begin hospice care and say goodbye to family and friends.

“Even in her exit, Mrs. Johnson exceeded expectations,” her daughter wrote. “When most kidney dialysis patients stop treatment, the prognosis is generally 1-2 weeks, but she lived well past that, by more than two months.”

There will be a viewing for Mrs. Johnson at 10 a.m. Monday at the Vaughn Greene Funeral Home, York Road and East Cold Spring Lane, which will be followed by funeral services at 10:30 a.m.

In addition to her daughter, she is survived by her son, Michael Johnson of San Francisco; a sister, Geraldine Yarborough Ford of Baltimore; three grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren. Her longtime companion, retired Army sergeant Robert Cole, died in 1999.

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