Updated: August 24, 2014 6:10AM
Gladys Johnson ambled gently through the parking lot of St. John Lutheran Church, appropriately enough the oldest surviving place of worship in the city of Gary.
“All this fuss over me today?” Johnson asked rhetorically while entering a back door.
Yes, Ms. Johnson, it’s not every day that the oldest Gary resident born in the city turns 100 years old. On Thursday, the city celebrated this rare honor by introducing Johnson to dozens of city youth at the historic church.
“Which of you will be history-makers in the world like Ms. Johnson?” said Naomi Millender, Johnson’s niece, who served as master of ceremonies for the event.
Dozens of children raised their hands to the sky. They did so with a sincere look of hope and determination that only a child could create. And believe.
“There they are,” Millender told the crowd. “They’re gonna be history-makers, here or somewhere in the world making history, learning from the experts and becoming an expert themselves.”
The children were taking a break from their Summer Enrichment for Learning Program, hosted by the Gary Historical and Cultural Society. Each weekday, kids ages 6 to 14 take a variety of summer classes at the church, from drumming and photography to anger management and positive life skills. They also take field trips and eat lunch here.
The most important enrichment, however, is their priceless time with volunteer mentors, church elders and several foster grandparents from Catholic Charities. This is how the torch of tradition is passed from older to younger generations. This is how history is told to impressionable young minds. This is how the city’s deepest resource — its youth — gets a life lesson that doesn’t come with a degree or commencement ceremony.
“If we get to them early enough, they will be our city’s future and we will be in good hands,” said Millender, whose 94-year-old mother, Dolly Millender, founded the historical society in 1976.
Dolly is Gladys Johnson’s younger sister, and the two matriarchs of the city sat next to each other in front of a large birthday cake as the kids waited for dessert.
“Quiet now,” Naomi told them, “I need you to listen.”
Silence draped the room.
Johnson, a long-retired educator, recalled her days as principal of Garnett Elementary School, when pop star Michael Jackson attended the school. She still lives near his boyhood home.
“He used to come to school tired, from staying up so late the nights before, performing,” she told the kids. “So we let him sleep.”
A few kids asked her questions about the King of Pop, who serves more as a mythical figure of hope to them than merely a dead musician from their city.
“Was he our age when he started dancing?” asked a young girl.
“Yes, he was,” replied Johnson, tapping on the table. “He started dancing on tables just like this one here.”
Jackson is still worshipped as a native-son hero, for obvious reasons, but it’s the Gladys Johnsons of the city who should be lauded as role models. One, in fact, who returned to the Steel City although it’s now brittle with rust.
Johnson was one of only three people born in Gary on July 17, 1914, and the only one with such a claim to still live there. As a graduate of Indiana State Teachers’ College, she was the first principal of Drew Elementary School and a longtime leader of the Gary Urban League, back when it had bite.
She struggled against prejudice, discrimination and racism through the decades while always keeping her eyes on the prize — educating the city’s youth.
“Are you one of my kids?” Johnson asked Ted Brown, a gray-haired mentor who teaches photography to kids in the summer program.
“Yes, I am,” he replied, leaning in for a photo opportunity with his former educator.
Johnson could only smile.
One after another, guests came up to Johnson to thank her for contributions to the city and its children, regardless of their age today.
“The mayor wants you to know she counts her blessings that you were born here and that you still live here,” said Anika Johnson (no relation), the city’s director of constituent services.
She also presented Johnson with an “I Love Gary” shirt and a document keepsake. (Watch my video at posttrib.suntimes.com/news/davich/index.html.)
The summer program kids then joined to sing her “Happy Birthday to You,” including a version from two girls just learning how to play it on violin.
Music, a universal language in any city, remains the most affordable currency of communication in Gary, from old gospel hymns to recycled remakes of Michael Jackson songs.
Two days after Johnson’s birthday party, I was privileged to interview Ella Jenkins, known as the First Lady of Children’s Music. The Chicago treasure, who turns 90 in a few days, won a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and she has yet another new album coming out to coincide with her birthday.
“Where were you born?” she asked me while we chatted on a park bench near her home.
When I replied “Gary,” she unleashed a huge smile and recalled playing music in that city through the decades. She could have talked about it all day if we had the time.
“There are some real good people in that city,” she told me. “That’s their true hope.”
I nodded knowingly and my mind raced to Gladys Johnson, Dolly Millender, Naomi Millender and Dolly’s other daughter, Justine Preston, among others, each who serve as keepers of the city’s flame.
Yes, the flame is not the raging inferno it once was. At times it seems barely a flicker. We know that. They know that. Do the kids know that? I didn’t get that impression when they were asked who among them will someday be history-makers.
Every hand shot into the air.
Connect with Jerry via email, at firstname.lastname@example.org, voice mail, at 713-7237, or Facebook, Twitter, and his blog, at jerrydavich.wordpress.com.