This was the year Darell Johnson was going to get in shape. He planned to quit his four jobs. Join his brother as a personal trainer. Spend more time with his four children.
One month ago, while the kids were visiting him over the weekend, he developed a cough.
That Monday, his ex-wife Melissa took him to Morristown Medical Center. The next day, Darell was on a ventilator. This past Saturday morning, April 18, 2020, he died. He was 43.
The lifelong Morristown resident is among 269 people in Morris County, and nearly 4,400 across New Jersey, who have perished so far from complications of COVID-19.
Darell Johnson’s death has left a void in Morristown far bigger than his 360-pound frame, larger even, than the immense smile which, by all accounts, brightened every space he entered — from Morristown High School, where he was an administrative assistant; to the hospital, where he wheeled patients to their appointments; to local bars, where his primary weapons as a bouncer were his smile and calm demeanor.
Co-workers described a gentle giant, the most carefree spirit and the hardest worker they ever saw.
A man who put in so many hours he would doze off during bar shifts…yet who found time for every football practice and dance recital of the children he adored. A guy people trusted to look after their kids, too.
“A bouncer who didn’t have to beat people up…. we’re not going to see another like him,” said Mel Alston, Darell’s teammate on Morristown High School’s 1993 state championship football team.
When Alston realized he was speaking of his friend in the past tense, he choked up.
“This is crazy right now. Him? Out of everyone? This hurts.”
“Devastating,” said Mackey Pendergrast, superintendent of the Morris School District, where Darell worked for 21 years, most recently as an assistant in the high school guidance department.
Darell was “one of the kindest people I ever met,” said Pendergrast. The district also is mourning coronavirus victim Berma Haynes, who retired a couple of years ago after almost two decades as an administrative assistant.
“This is a tremendous tragedy and loss for our community. We will miss both Berma and Darell greatly,” Pendergrast said.
Trish O’Keefe, president of Morristown Medical Center, cited Darell’s “unforgettable smile, and his extraordinary way of taking care of his patients and making each one of them feel special” during his decade working in patient transport. “He will be sorely missed.”
For Melissa Johnson, the emotions of the last few weeks have been compounded by her family’s own struggles with COVID-19. Katelyn, 22; AJ, 13; Emma, 9, and Maycie, 4, all showed symptoms. But Melissa was hardest hit, laid low for days with burning headaches and excruciating muscle pain.
“It’s been a roller-coaster. The concept of time doesn’t feel real, because the days have been so intense,” said Melissa, a secretary at the Sussex Avenue School.
‘Stay Home for Us,’ a video tribute to Darell Johnson by his family:
She broke down while trying to express her gratitude. Morris Township’s Fairchild Fire House, where Katelyn is a volunteer firefighter and Melissa serves on the Women’s Auxiliary, has brought meals, and gifts for the kids.
The Morristown Wildcats football program, where AJ plays with 7th graders, has delivered groceries, Easter baskets, and gift cards. Darell’s colleagues from Morristown High School have shown support.
A GoFundMe drive, launched to help Darell pay medical bills and get back on his feet, has raised more than $84,000 so far for the family.
“Morristown is absolutely amazing. It’s touching how many people in the community care about us,” Melissa said.
Some are dealing with their grief by drawing inspiration from Darell’s life. Katelyn said her father taught her about community involvement, perseverance, and carving her own path, starting with Little League baseball when she was 10.
“My dad told me that I could do anything a boy could do,” she said.
“His wisdom always led me to a positive place….He’ll always be with us and will continue to guide my mom, siblings and I toward greatness.”
Michael Ryan, a bartender at Tavern Off the Green who worked and roomed with Darell, regarded The Big D as a “special soul, a beacon of light when he walked in a room.” Darell’s energy has moved him to face the pandemic with hope and determination.
“I think everybody needs to be ‘up,’ to work a little harder, give a little extra. That makes me smile, gets me through the day. Times are tough right now. I should be up, and be more like him, give more,” Ryan said.
Slideshow photos courtesy of the Johnson family. Click/ hover on images for captions:
‘WE KICKED THE BALL. HE MADE THE TACKLES’
Obesity is a high-risk factor for COVID-19, and Darell Johnson was a mountain of a man
But when Mel Alston met him, as a classmate at the Frelinghuysen Middle School, Darell was was as lean and swift as a lightning bolt.
He ran the four-by-four relay in high school, and was a fleet-footed receiver who excelled on special teams despite his slight 160-pound frame.
“We kicked the ball, he made the tackles,” Alston said. “He was a tackling machine.”
But as a bouncer, Darell “was able to talk to people, to walk them out. He never had to get physical. It was amazing,” said Alston, who marveled at his friend’s work ethic.
Darell started every phone call by inquiring about Alston’s family. When it was his turn, Darell proudly detailed every achievement, large and small, of each of his kids.
“They were his pride and joy. He cared about everybody else’s children, too.”
When Alston’s daughter transferred from a parochial school to Morristown High, Alston asked his former teammate to keep a watchful eye on her, to smooth her transition.
Students liked Darell. Bella Simon, a 2019 MHS graduate, remembered how he would sneak her donuts and bagels left from meetings in the guidance office.
“He always wanted to see students happy,” she said.
A HUNDRED HONKS A DAY
For weeks, Jennifer Ryan has kept a sign outside her home on South Street:
HONK FOR DARELL!
Every day, she said, she’s been hearing a hundred honks.
Jennifer and her bartender brother worked with Darell at Tavern Off the Green, “the last dive bar in Morristown,” according to sisters Michele and Jamie Moore, owners of the Morris Street watering hole that has been in their family since 1970.
For five years, Darell was a bouncer on weeknights. On weekends, he worked a few doors down at Grasshopper Off the Green.
Sometimes, Darell nodded off. He had an astonishing ability to snore, eat and follow every word of a conversation—while dozing, Jennifer Ryan said.
She liked to wake him by shouting “Fire!” He would smile and respond with a universal gesture of … goodwill.
Punctuality was not his strong suit. Each Tuesday, Jennifer ran a betting pool with the regulars; whoever came closest to guessing his arrival time won a free drink. He showed up hours late for social events, “but you loved him so much, you never got mad.”
Jennifer also lost her 84-year-old mother-in-law to COVID-19. “This thing’s a monster,” she said.
She last saw Darell on the final Sunday before bars and restaurants were shut down in March. A couple of friends went to the Collins Pub in Morris Plains. Darell gave her a huge hug, something he never did before, and thanked her for their friendship.
Darell was determined to shed pounds, and start his new life, Jennifer said.
“He was making 2020 his year to get healthy.”
‘IT CAME ON QUICK’
Melissa was a freshman at Morristown High when she met Darell, a senior.
“Nothing really bothered him. If something did, the next minute he could move on and just keep going,” she said.
“That was impressive. You look at the big picture of life, that’s how it should be. Holding a grudge is not where you should be.”
Darell went off to study engineering at Penn State University. Eventually, they reconnected. Although their nine-year marriage ended in divorce, they remained close and took co-parenting seriously. Darell raised Melissa’s daughter Katelyn as his own, and the couple had three more children together.
The kids were visiting Darell for the weekend when he got sick. Tavern bartender Michael Ryan, his roommate, looked after them.
“It came on quick. He had a cough. He was tired,” said Michael, who somehow escaped illness.
Darell’s family was not so lucky. Soon after taking Darell to the hospital on March 23, Melissa got burning headaches behind her eyes. “My thighs ached through my bones,” Melissa said.
For two weeks, she lost her senses of taste and smell. Fatigue and a cough persist.
The last time the family conversed with Darell was his second day at the hospital, March 24, over the phone. Visitors are barred because of the pandemic.
Darell was sedated heavily and placed on a ventilator, where he lingered for 26 days. He developed pneumonia. A tracheostomy was performed. His kidneys failed and he went on dialysis. His fever spiked. Twice, his heart stopped. Hospital staff fought heroically to revive him.
“They knew he had four kids,” Melissa said. With the help of nurses, the children Face-Timed on Easter, and again last Wednesday, to tell their dad they loved him. Darell was in an induced coma.
“I cannot express the sorrow my family and I are feeling right now,” Katelyn said on Monday, “but it’s comforting knowing that he’s resting easy now.”
When public gatherings are allowed, many glasses are sure to be raised to Darell at Tavern Off the Green.
Owner Michele Moore hopes people keep his memory alive by emulating his warmth.
“We have to be kinder to one another,” she said. “Stay strong.”
Darell’s bartending roommate plans his own tribute to The Big D.
His friend used to reward himself at the end of a shift with a White Claw Mango, a hard seltzer. Michael Ryan is keeping a can from Darell’s private stash.
“That will be behind the bar when I open my own place,” he said.