Gregory Johnson died a homeless man a day shy of his 61st birthday.
It didn't matter that he was a former high school athlete, a college graduate, or the sibling of one of Columbus' most prominent elected officials.
Gregory, the brother of Mayor Pro-Tem Evelyn Turner Pugh, passed away on Jan. 5 after a decades-long battle with an addiction to crack cocaine. At the time of his death, he was living under a bridge between Third Avenue and Veterans Parkway, right around 17th Street.
He died at the Gentiva Hospice on 100 Brookstone Centre Parkway, where Evelyn and other relatives visited him regularly as his health declined. She said his body was so ravaged by drugs that he died of heart failure three weeks after having a hernia operation.
"He's at peace and can really rest now," she said upon hearing the news.
Evelyn reflected on her brother's troubled life this week while sitting at her kitchen table with their cousin, Rodney Johnson, who grew up a close friend of Gregory. The two described Gregory as a man full of potential who squandered his future on a drug-infested life.
Evelyn, the oldest of four children, said Gregory had everything going for him in his younger years. As a student at Carver High School, he played football, basketball and ran track before graduating in 1973. He got a scholarship to Fort Valley State University, where he graduated before landing his first job as a coach at Chavala High School in Russell County. He later worked for the Columbus Fire Department.
"He was married, had one son, two cars, a home, and literally had a white picket fence around his house," she said. "He had everything that you were brought up to get and to reach for in life."
But Gregory was also easily influenced and loved to party, Rodney said. By the late 1980s, drugs had seeped into his universe and his life began to unravel. Evelyn suspects his drug addiction was the reason his wife left him in the early 1990s.
"She took their son, close to Christmas, and just left in the middle of the night, or at least she was gone the next morning," she said. "And we didn't hear from her for 20 years."
Evelyn said her brother's addiction began in 1987, about the same time that she first ran for Columbus Council. She tried to talk him out of the lifestyle, but he wouldn't listen, and she soon had to distance him from her family.
"I was angry because that's not how we were brought up," she said. "Then he took my children's TVs and sold them and that was the end of that. I told him I didn't want him coming around my children, because I didn't want my children around drugs."
Still, they would see each other around town, especially when her church would go to feed the homeless living by the railroad tracks.
"I would see him and we'd talk, and he would come up and hug me," she
said. "People would look at us real strange and say, 'You let people like that come up and hug you?' And I would say, 'Why not? They're still people. And they might not look pleasing to you, or to somebody else, but if they want to talk to me, I talk to them.'"
Evelyn said she would always introduce Gregory to people as her brother, even though it broke her heart to see him in that condition.
And his situation just shows the universal impact of homelessness.
"To me, it says it can affect anybody regardless of what color you are, what economic status you're in, what educational level you've gotten to, it doesn't matter," she said. "Homelessness sees no color, sees no gender, sees no finances. It affects everybody because even if you're not homeless, it has an impact on you, too."
Gregory's memorial service was held Jan. 10 at Rosehill Methodist Church, drawing about 75 relatives and friends, including many from the homeless community.
The eulogy was presented by Minister Ed Grifenhagen, a strategy pastor at My Church. He had been working with Gregory through a homeless ministry called M2540 based on Matthew 25:40.
Evelyn was among those who stood up to reflect on Gregory's life, and she talked about the complexities of his life and their relationship.
"I told them that I was angry with my brother 'cause I wanted him to do better and he chose to go another way," she said. "But I still loved him."
Alva James-Johnson, 706-571-8521. Reach her on Facebook at AlvaJamesJohnsonLedger.