Four Peace Corps volunteers left their posts in Nepal and, for 10 days, traveled by train across India. They saw the Taj Mahal and the city of Kolkata. Sometimes, they rode in air-conditioned sleeper cars. Sometimes, they could only get tickets in third class.
One night, they discovered they only had two sleeper seats for four people. So they folded down the seats and piled in, attempting a little sleep. Naomi Odell tucked herself next to her friend, Dolores Johnson.
“That whole trip I felt kind of bad,” said Odell, then just out of college. “Poor Dolores.”
Mrs. Johnson was in her early 60s then, retired, a new grandmother and the eldest among the travelers. She did not complain.
“If anything,” Odell said, “she thought it was a great adventure.”
Mrs. Johnson spent her life taking on great adventures around the world and at home. She died May 15 due to complications from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. She was 84.
In the city of Mandeville, Jamaica, Mrs. Johnson’s Aunt Zoe was the family nurse. When Mrs. Johnson cut her hand on a thorn while climbing a tree, her auntie cleaned her up and wrapped her hand in a banana leaf to let it heal.
Later, while in the hospital after a serious fall, Mrs. Johnson settled on her career path after the doctor and nurses take such good care of her. At 17, she left Jamaica for England to stay with family. At 19, she enrolled in nursing school.
Mrs. Johnson specialized in surgical nursing, then learned orthopedic nursing, and later worked in research and development. After meeting and marrying a young American who was in the Air Force, she traveled again, this time to Wisconsin.
It was the early 1960s, during the civil rights movement, and Mrs. Johnson encountered laws and expectations that she’d never quite experienced.
While pregnant with her daughter, she boarded a train headed for Kansas, where her husband was then stationed and waiting.
As a Black woman, she was expected to change seats at a certain point. “She didn’t realize the train was set up to be segregated,” said her daughter, Karen Slaton.
Mrs. Johnson, about eight months pregnant at the time, was dressed neatly in a suit, gloves and hat.
“She just stayed where she was and wondered why people looked at her strangely,” Slaton said. “But nobody bothered her.”
Mrs. Johnson built a life in America but never stopped seeing the world. She lived in New Jersey with her husband and two children, and later, after divorce and his death, moved to Florida. She worked in Saudi Arabia at the King Fahad Specialist Hospital and always remembered the Peace Corps volunteers who’d come to Jamaica when she was a child.
Her daughter called one day with news — she was pregnant.
“What do you want to call yourself?” Slaton asked her mom.
Mrs. Johnson was quiet for a moment.
“When are you due?”
“October,” her daughter said.
“Oh well, I had planned to go to the Peace Corps.”
She’d been learning French and already had her assignment in Morocco, but the adventure of becoming a grandmother for the first time won out. Mrs. Johnson stayed in the U.S. for a bit longer, helping her daughter and caring for granddaughter Kalena.
In 2002, she left for Nepal.
There, Mrs. Johnson was stationed just south of Kathmandu, at a crossroads other volunteers often passed through. She worked at the local nursing school, training young nurses.
Her home was a three-hour bus ride from fellow volunteer Odell, who looked up to her as a matriarch, and they connected over their shared Jamaican roots. On visits, Mrs. Johnson would care for Odell’s hair. Mrs. Johnson’s home always had good food and visitors.
Once, when geckos infested her apartment, Mrs. Johnson called her Nepali counterpart at the nursing college. She was prepared to leave if the geckos stayed.
She could handle crowded travel by train through India, the language barrier and no products to style her own hair. But Mrs. Johnson had limits.
“Mom does not do lizards,” Slaton said. “And they gecko-busted her apartment. They did not want her to leave.”
Eventually, Mrs. Johnson’s health ended her overseas travels. But she continued building community at home.
One Saturday, Barbara Hammond went to the 78th Street Library in Tampa to check out a book. There, the smell of cookies led her to Mrs. Johnson, who was having a bake sale as a fundraiser for the Friends of the 78th Street Community Library.
Mrs. Johnson got involved after her daughter, who was a librarian at the branch, moved to a new library. Mrs. Johnson stayed in the group.
She was unassuming, Hammond said, soft-spoken and devoted to the things she believed in, including that library.
Mrs. Johnson was a devout Christian and a founding member of the Caribbean Cultural Association. She joined the historically Black sorority Sigma Gamma Rho. And after the Peace Corps, she joined AmeriCorps and helped first-graders at Foster Elementary School in Tampa with their reading skills.
Ann Ellis met Mrs. Johnson at a bank years ago, where Ellis worked as an investment banker. The two became friends, and when Ellis and her husband felt called to ministry, Mrs. Johnson brought her granddaughter to their services at Exalted Word Ministries in Seffner.
“Everything she did,” Ellis said, “she did it to be a blessing to others.”
Poynter news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.
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