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A spirited farewell
Mourners recall teen's smile, optimism

Pallbearers carry the coffin of Traci Johnson out of the Philadelphia church where she was active in everything from teaching Sunday school to singing in the choir. Johnson, 19, committed suicide Saturday in an Indianapolis clinic. -- Jacqueline Larma / Associated Press
 
February 13, 2004
 

PHILADELPHIA -- A packed inner-city church said goodbye Thursday to one of its best-loved members, a 19-year-old woman known for unstoppable optimism while working with youths in one of Philadelphia's more troubled neighborhoods.

Tributes during the emotional, two-hour Pentecostal service described Traci Johnson's beautiful smile and commitment to her church and community. No one directly mentioned her suicide at an Indianapolis clinic during an Eli Lilly drug study.

"Traci Johnson died last Saturday night -- by no fault of her own," the Rev. Joel Barnaby told the standing-room-only crowd at his Greater Philadelphia Church in the city's Kensington neighborhood.

Some called out "amen" as he said it, after ministers, relatives and friends described a young woman whose parents and grandparents attended the church, who grew up with close friends there, was a leading member of the choir and volunteered for everything from fund-raisers to teaching Sunday school.

Her pastor has questioned whether the drug study she was in might have been to blame. Lilly officials have said they do not think duloxetine played any part in her suicide and that the drug is a safe treatment for patients with depression.

Johnson, who graduated from a suburban Philadelphia high school, was one of about 25 healthy volunteers in the trial with no signs of depression or other illnesses. Lilly has acknowledged that four volunteers with depression committed suicide during several years of clinical trials for the drug, a level the drug maker says was lower than for those taking the placebo.

Johnson's parents have declined to talk to reporters and have designated Barnaby as their spokesman. The minister declined to say whether the family, which lives in Bensalem, Pa., would pursue legal action against the drug company, saying decisions about the future would have to wait until they had properly grieved for their daughter.

"Everyone at Eli Lilly and Co. is deeply saddened by this young woman's death. We cannot imagine the grief being experienced by her loved ones, and we extend our deepest sympathies to them," Lilly said in a statement Thursday.

Before the funeral, Barnaby said Johnson's mother, Peggy Johnson, noticed something odd in telephone conversations with her daughter after Johnson entered the drug trial.

"Peggy said she would call and say, 'My heart feels funny' or 'I feel funny today.' Peggy described some of the telephone conversations as being real silly and lightheaded."

The family didn't think anything of it at the time, Barnaby said, but wonder now if their daughter was suffering ill effects from the test.

The funeral, charged with up-tempo gospel music from the choir Johnson once sang with, had friends alternately weeping and shouting with joy while raising their arms toward the ceiling. The teenager's powder-blue casket stood open at the foot of the altar, about 15 feet from the front row where her family sat.

More than 300 mourners filled the church on a street where Johnson, her mother and other members regularly tested their faith against some of the city's roughest conditions. The day before the funeral, Barnaby pointed out places where shootings, drug deals and other crimes occurred.

"Welcome to the neighborhood that Traci loved," Barnaby said Thursday. "Visitors, we have our ushers on alert outside to keep your tires on your cars."

Early on Wednesday mornings, Barnaby told the crowd, Johnson would join other church members on walks through the neighborhood, often encountering street people, drug dealers and prostitutes.

At a particularly rough corner, Johnson would sometimes cry as she prayed, "God, save this neighborhood, heal the broken lives that are here," the pastor recalled.

One day she and some friends worked at a sidewalk flea market to raise money for the church. "A homeless man was walking by," said Tiffany Wilson, one of the teenagers at the flea market. "Everybody moved away when they saw him" because of his frightening appearance.

One of the man's feet appeared to be grossly infected and swollen to three times its normal size. He was hobbling and asked for help with his shoe. As the other teens backed away, Wilson said, Johnson stepped forward, got down on one knee and adjusted the shoe so the man walk more easily.

"Traci just had such great character and spirit," Wilson said. "She has been an inspiration and taught me so much."

Friends told the congregation that Johnson enrolled at Indiana Bible College in Indianapolis last fall with the hope of eventually returning to the neighborhood.

The Rev. Paul Mooney, the school's president, said Johnson made friends quickly. For her funeral, he and 17 students from the college drove to Philadelphia.

"Traci made a tremendous impact on us in such a short time, and it takes a lot of personality to do that," he told the crowd.

Her father was between jobs, and Johnson took this semester off to join the Lilly drug program so she could earn enough for the $5,000 annual tuition. She was paid $150 a day, plus meals and lodging.

"I prayed with her about it," said John Crompton, a friend from Philadelphia whom she once dated.

Speaking after the service, he said: "She thought it was the right thing to do, because that was the only way that she was going to be able to stay out there."

Crompton, who attended the Indianapolis school for a while, said he had talked to her by telephone the night before she died and then again the following day, just hours before her body was found.

"She sounded happy. She was a pretty upbeat person. Even when times were rough, she would keep a pretty good spirit about things."

Johnson was eager to come back and work in the community, sure that her faith could help make a difference, friends said. Lee Godwin was one of several people who said Johnson was too hopeful to have hanged herself. Godwin, an associate pastor at the church who volunteers as a chaplain for the Police Clergy unit of the Philadelphia Police Department, said he has assisted with counseling at several attempted suicides. People who try to kill themselves, he offered, typically have few contacts in their community, do not communicate well and are otherwise isolated.

"Traci was the opposite of that," he said. "She was very involved not only with her family but with two churches, in Indianapolis and Philadelphia. Any 19-year-old who's willing to get up early in the morning to go pray out on the street doesn't sound like a loner.

"She had a huge future ahead of her," he said. "She was looking forward very much to coming back here to work with inner-city youth."

Call Star reporter John Strauss at (317) 444-6208.

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