When Jimminey Derrick Gibbs-Johnson was still in elementary school, he told anyone who would listen that when he grew up he was going to be a broadcast star, have a radio program and interview celebrities.
Most adults laughed, or at best replied with a patronizing, "Sure."
But Gibbs-Johnson was not slowed by doubters, and he did not stop dreaming. In his 24 years, the self-taught broadcaster did all he said he would do -- and more. He interviewed top entertainers, once held weekly sessions with President Carter, produced radio and television shows and received international awards.
He did not do these things just for himself, his friends say. He founded and directed Pyramid Communications International (PCI), a nonprofit group, to provide local youths with media experience. And, according to his friends, he has helped instill something many youths had never had: faith in themselves. Because of him, young reporters -- mostly local minority group members -- got to do such things as travel to Jordan and interview politicians, business leaders and entertainers.
Gibbs-Johnson, called Derrick by friends, died of pneumonia Dec. 7. He still was using a walker and recuperating from injuries stemming from a hit-and-run accident last spring in which a car jumped a curb and struck him. He would have been 25 this month.
His life and legacy are particularly worth noting today, his friends say, with headlines often heralding violent crimes committed by youths.
"He was really trying to change the attitudes in the media toward young people," said Cathy Hughes, owner of radio stations WOL-AM and WMMJ-FM. "One thing I have to say is that in all the years he pitched me for an opportunity to put a tape on air, or whatever, he never pitched just for himself. It was never, 'Give me an opportunity.' It was, 'Give us an opportunity.' "
Many of those who starred in Gibbs-Johnson's productions were youths who were overlooked by others and even elementary school pupils who did not do well in school or who had problems at home.
When 16-year-old Daniel Foxx failed his communications classes at PCI, Gibbs-Johnson did not give up on him. Instead, he asked Foxx if he wanted to work in the office. Now Foxx is a production engineer at Pyramid.
"He asked me why I failed," said Foxx. "I said I did better with hands-on classes, and he put me in the studio. I did well, and he made me production manager. He would talk to me about my problems and help me out with school and with my family. He was nice, generous, smart and helpful. He inspired me."
Mandana Shahvari, a sophomore at George Washington University, attended classes at Pyramid and eventually helped host one of the teen radio programs.
"Derrick was the person we learned the most from," said Shahvari, 18. "He was always there to give us support, not always by teaching but to say, 'You're going to do well.' Derrick was the motivation."
Eunice Boone, the foster mother who had watched over Gibbs-Johnson since he was 2 months old, recalled asking him once, when he was about 18 and operating PCI from their home, why he did not work with youths in Maryland, because they lived in Capitol Heights. She said her son replied, "Mom, most of the kids you hear about committing crimes and having problems are in the District. I think they need somebody to help them."
"He lived his dream," said Boone, who used to leave her job early to take Gibbs-Johnson to the White House, where he talked to President Carter about youth and interviewed him for his program. "His dreams came true."
She has the yellowing newspaper articles and the photo albums to prove it: Derrick in Hollywood, a crew of young journalists he trained beside him; Derrick and his teen-aged protege Don Turner interviewing Diana Ross; pictures of Derrick with "Star Trek" actor William Shatner, entertainer Jayne Kennedy and singer Smokey Robinson; Derrick rehearsing to help host a Jerry Lewis telethon; a mayoral proclamation declaring Feb. 11, 1983, "Derrick Gibbs-Johnson Day" in the District.
When he was a small boy he frequently would sneak up on relatives with a microphone and tape recorder in his hands. With two younger cousins, a 10-year-old Gibbs-Johnson formed a singing group that performed at family get-togethers. Later, in junior high school, he organized a band. He played drums, piano and saxophone.
"He never had a music lesson. He played by ear," his mother said. "All I could do was give moral support and love him. I didn't have money. What Derrick accomplished, he got on his own. He was an unbelievable child. Sometimes now, I have to stop and say, 'Was he real?' "
In 1982 Gibbs-Johnson founded PCI, which offers 72-week communications courses to students ages 5 and older for a fee of $1,400. Financial assistance often is arranged for those who cannot afford the fee. Students learn technical skills, such as interviewing, writing and engineering. And they are taught how to conduct themselves at receptions and other social events.
Most friends say Gibbs-Johnson was Pyramid. He recruited, taught, counseled and sought financial aid for the organization. In addition to offering classes, the organization produced broadcast programs for youths, giving trainees a chance to put their skills to work.
"All the Way," a radio magazine produced by PCI, is heard on WKYS-FM on Sunday nights. PCI has offices in the Capital Children's Museum at Third and H streets NE. The black nameplate on the office door still says, "J. Derrick Gibbs-Johnson, Founder and Executive Director."
Gibbs-Johnson lived at Pyramid, friends said. He often worked until 2 to 3 a.m. About a week before his death, Gibbs-Johnson tried to conduct business from his hospital bed. When he was too weak to speak, his mother asked whether there was anything she could do. He wrote, "Call Miss Anderson," a friend he wanted to talk to about joining the PCI board, a 23-member panel that shares oversight of PCI with its executive director.
"Though I'm twice his age and have children his age, we were great friends," said Deborah Anderson. "What we shared mostly was our interest in improving children."
Barbara Tate, owner of Babs Record Shop in Suitland, was another friend of Gibbs-Johnson. "He started coming in here when he was about 11," she said as she stood behind the counter of her store. "He would come in here and tell me all the things he wanted to do. We talked about records and his music career.
"I've been out here so long I've watched all the kids in the area grow up, and I can tell you he stood out more than anybody will ever know," she said, her voice choking with tears. "I saw him follow his dreams. He worked at it. He was a role model for teen-agers."
Gibbs-Johnson established an impressive list of well-known people who served as volunteers, PCI board members and supporters.
Eugene Harley, vice president and marketing director for Wild World amusement park at Largo, is a board member. "I met him when he was barely in his teens," Harley said. "He seemed like an adult then . . . . I don't know how old he was when he died. Age didn't seem important once you met him."
Still, friends who are older than Gibbs-Johnson was said he worried about growing old, fearful that age would take from him the magnetism he had with youths. He began lying about his age, telling reporters who interviewed him that he was younger than he actually was.
For now, Cynthia Reed, a friend and volunteer, is PCI's acting executive director. She plans to manage the organization until Turner, the teen-ager who was Gibbs-Johnson's choice to succeed him, is old enough to take over.
"Pyramid is something meaningful in the life of these kids," Reed said. Gibbs-Johnson "loved them, got tutors for them when they needed them, helped them with all of their problems."
"Pyramid is important in their lives because some of them don't have much else to do. Pyramid makes them feel good about who they are. They miss him a lot, though. They did what they did for him."
Now, Reed said, PCI is having financial difficulties. The organization had depended heavily on Gibbs-Johnson's fund-raising skills, and no one was trained to manage its finances. In addition, Reed said, PCI faces prospects of having to pay rent for office space. The museum initially provided PCI with rent-free quarters, she said.
Still, adult supporters are determined that Gibbs-Johnson's dream will live on. Anderson said she will join the board. Reed said producers are working on new programs and hope to get "All the Way" syndicated.
"That group has accomplished a lot. I can tell you they won't stop," Harley said.
"The only thing that comes to my mind, after the grief and everything has subsided, is that Derrick and God knew that Derrick was going to live just 24 years. Therefore, when the rest of us were sitting around skipping and playing kickball, Derrick was working on a dream. He didn't waste a minute of his life."