Funeral services were held Monday at March Life Tribute Center in Windsor Mill for Kimla C. Wilkins-Johnson, a lawyer and a former legislative aide to Rep. Elijah E. Cummings who died Aug. 28 of breast cancer at Gilchrist Hospice Care in Towson.
The Hunt Valley resident was 56.
The daughter of educators Robert H. Wilkins and Betty Jo Murray, Kimla Channie Wilkins was born in Baltimore and raised on Fernhill Avenue in West Arlington.
As a student at Walbrook High School, Ms. Wilkins-Johnson was a member of the National Honor Society and participated in sports teams as a manager and cheerleader. She also performed on stage and had a leading role in the school’s production of “Strictly Matrimony.”
She was salutatorian for the Class of 1978, which had voted her “Most likely to succeed,” “Most intellectual,” and “Most sophisticated.”
“Kim had spectacularly high SAT scores. She had a 1590 out of 1600, when 1600 was the max,” said Anne O. Emery, who was Walbrook’s principal from 1971 to 1980.
“I said, ‘You’ve got to go to an Ivy League school,’ and I insisted on Yale. She didn’t really want to go because she didn’t want to leave home,” said Dr. Emery, who later was an assistant superintendent for city public schools and the founder of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women.
“She was in New Haven for two weeks when she became homesick. She called her mother and said she was coming home, and her mother said that she couldn’t come home until she had her degree, and when she did come home, she had several degrees,” Dr. Emery said.
“Kim was always a strong student, creative and very good at academics and drama,” she said. “She was very outgoing, eager to please and eager to try new things. She liked exploring and never had enough challenges.”
At Yale, she began as a theater major and later switched to economics.
She was a member of the Yale Business and Economic Forum, Yale Coalition of Student Leaders and Berzelius, a secret society.
While at Yale, she also appeared in numerous theatrical productions, including one that was directed by Angela Bassett, then a student at Yale who went on to become a noted actress and activist.
Ms. Wilkins-Johnson was among several other students who founded Yale’s first African-American theater group.
“She became a champion of social causes, starting and participating in many protests and initiatives,” daughter Xavier Johnson, who lives in Cockeysville, wrote in a biographical sketch of her mother. “She continued for decades to be an advocate for those in need.”
“She cared about the less fortunate and never lost her love for Baltimore and its people,” Dr. Emery said.
Ms. Wilkins-Johnson enrolled at Columbia Law School, from which she earned a degree in 1986. While a student at Columbia, she studied in England and France.
“When Kim finished Columbia, she brought a scrapbook that she had made for me. It was 100 pages,” Dr. Emery said.
“It contained everything she had done since she left Walbrook. In group pictures, she had underlined her name in red, as if I wouldn’t know who she was, as if I could ever forget her,” she said.
In 1987, she earned dual master’s degrees in public affairs and urban and regional planning from Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
She began her legal career in Los Angeles as a clerk for U.S. District Judge David W. Williams, and later worked at law firms in Houston, San Francisco and Louisiana.
She was admitted to the bar in Maryland, District of Columbia, Connecticut, and South Carolina.
In 1988, Ms. Wilkins-Johnson joined the Washington law firm of Brownstein, Zeidman & Schomer, where she worked in the field of national trademark infringement and franchise litigation.
She was married in 1990 to Oliver W. Johnson III, a lawyer, and moved to Columbia, S.C., where she joined the law firm of Nelson, Mullins, Riley & Scarborough, specializing in multi-district and national level litigation cases.
She and her husband established their own firm, Johnson & Johnson in 1994, and later relocated the firm to Charlotte, N.C.
The couple, who dissolved their firm in 2002, moved to Okolona, Miss., in 2006. Ms. Wilkins-Johnson then joined the firm of Waide & Associates P.A.
In Okolona, she served as president of the city zoning board and was a member of the board of the Okolona Chamber of Commerce. She also volunteered with the Girl Scouts and was a director of the Dollars for Scholars Planning Committee.
Separated from her husband — they would eventually divorce in 2013 — Ms. Wilkins-Johnson returned to Maryland and settled in Clinton in 2008. She joined Mr. Cummings’ staff in 2009 as a legislative aide, researcher and writer in Washington.
“She provided congressional services in the areas of independent policy research, analysis and drafting; developed and evaluated policy options; and served as public relations spokesperson and liaison for Congressman Cummings,” he daughter wrote. “She had a passion for this work, as it gave her opportunities to advocate for the issues that she held close to her heart.”
After leaving Mr. Cummings’ office in 2009, she taught at Strayer University while continuing private legal consulting.
Ms. Wilkins-Johnson retired after being diagnosed in 2012 with Stage 2 breast cancer, and moved her treatment from Southern Maryland to the University of Maryland Medical Center, where she participated in clinical trials.
When her cancer went into remission, Ms. Wilkins-Johnson embarked on visits to most of the Caribbean countries.
She was diagnosed with Stage 4 metastatic breast cancer in 2014 and moved to her daughter’s Hunt Valley home.
“She endured treatment after treatment, surgery after surgery, all the while smiling and staying her joyous and beautiful self,” her daughter wrote.”She turned a diagnosis of 18 months into three amazing years.”
Ms. Wilkins-Johnson became involved with the Hopewell Cancer Support and the Living Beyond Breast Cancer organizations.
Her musical tastes ran to a wide spectrum, from classical to Celtic, Baroque to rhythm and blues. She enjoyed attending the theater, both Broadway and local productions, and attended “The Nutcracker” every Christmas season.
She was an accomplished seamstress who made clothing, blankets and even a christening gown for her grandson.
A memorial service was held on what would have been her 57th birthday.
In addition to her daughter, she is survived by a son, Zachary Johnson, who is a senior at Frostburg State University; four sisters, Michelle Wilkins of Upper Marlboro, Rita Matthews of Owings Mills, Jennifer White of Silver Spring and Lea Thomas of Currie, N.C.; and a grandson.