After a decade of struggle and strife, Carolyn Johnson thought she had found the right formula for success: a good church, a job at a Fortune 500 company and a four-bedroom home in Mitchellville.
Then one January morning in 1991, at a time when lots of companies were downsizing, a manager at MCI called Johnson--now Carolyn Cuff--into her office and told her she was being laid off.
"I got down to $60. I had to send my children to stay with my parents," said Cuff, who did everything from selling furniture to peddling insurance to make a living. Eventually, things began to look up. "I started studying again. I got back in the computer industry."
Today, Cuff, 48, of Adelphi, is a software engineer for Bell Atlantic and host of a new radio show. Cuff is paying for the program in the hopes that advertisers eventually will offer support. She said the show is designed to help churchgoers overcome life struggles--not unlike herself.
"Many people go to church, but when they come out, they fall back into their same way of thinking," Cuff said. "I am trying to invigorate and inspire people of faith because many watch too much TV instead of analyzing what is going on with their lives."
Cuff has one of the coveted 3 p.m. Sunday slots on WYCB (1340 AM), the oldest of the area's three 24-hour gospel stations. According to station sales manager Karen Jackson, the 3 p.m. slot is a prime time to reach people of faith.
"Sunday afternoon is a perfect time for people coming home from church or those who didn't make it to church," she said. "Our hope is that her program will generate a lot of interest and be uplifting and inspirational."
Jackson, a veteran radio programmer, said she is a good judge of people when it comes to doling out air time.
WYCB now is part of Radio One, a Lanham-based media company that has 26 radio stations across the country that are owned by Cathy Hughes.
Cuff will be on the air as long as she can come up with the $325 a week, which pays for production and broadcast expenses. She has booked program guests for the next two months. In her first broadcast, she was to interview Opal Gilbert, owner of a New York management consulting firm who got started in business after she, too, was laid off from a job.
Cuff also plans to interview Henry Montgomery, owner of Computer Experts Inc., a Rockville-based Christian Internet service provider that weeds out pornographic material.
Although Johnson has never hosted a radio show in the Washington area, she was a regular guest on radio back home in North Carolina, where she published a magazine. She plans to use a "radio magazine" format in her show.
"I want to show people that there is no excuse for them not succeeding," said Cuff, a member of Free Gospel Deliverance Temple in Coral Hill. "There are people who have faith in God, but are still afraid to reach for their dreams."
Cuff may have a soft North Carolina accent, but she can be very vocal. She has been elected president of the Chesapeake Chapter of Toastmasters International, a public speaking group.
"I don't care where you come from, you can be anything you want to be," Cuff said.
"Even though many people are hearing the word of God in church every Sunday, they don't know how to change their lives."
For Cuff, getting life in order has been a process that began more than two decades ago in Wallace, N.C. She was one of eight children of a chef father and a homemaker mother. After she graduated from high school, she joined the Army and married a soldier. But in the 1980s, the relationship ended in divorce.
Despite the hardship, Cuff was determined to make a better life for her three sons: John, Christian and Jermine. "I had a dream of owning a newspaper," said Cuff, who during the 1980s took a $700 income tax refund and started a publication called DEW, which stood for Determined to Win.
In 1985, she moved her three children to the Washington area because she believed that she could find her "American dream in Washington, D.C."
Cuff landed a sales job at Marlo Furniture and quickly became a sales leader over the next two years. During this period, she tried to revive DEW but struggled to get it off the ground. In 1988, she graduated from Strayer College with a bachelor's degree in business. "I had a class, and the professor said that anybody who made an 'A,' he would help get a job. I got an 'A,' and I was the one who got the job."
After working for a Fairfax engineering firm, Cuff was hired in 1989 at MCI. She worked there until 1991, when she was laid off. "It was hard then because I had three children. I had to get on welfare again.
"I thought that things would be better because I had a degree," Cuff said. "I cried a lot. I studied the Bible a lot, but I still cried because I didn't want to be where I was. I was renting the house in Mitchellville. I lost that."
Eventually, she was able to find another job. After two years on public assistance, Cuff was rehired by MCI in 1993 as a program analyst. She worked there for about a year. Over the next four years, Cuff worked as subcontractor designing software for several Fortune 500 companies. In 1997, she was hired as a software engineer at Bell Atlantic, where she has been in charge of several projects that include helping the company prepare for the year 2000 computer glitch.
To her surprise, with job stability came personal stability and a new marriage.
Because of her age and three children, Cuff thought it unlikely she would marry again. But her life changed one day when she walked into a Chinese restaurant in Hillandale. That day she began a friendship with Warren Cuff, a Defense Department chemist whom she married in November.
"I couldn't believe it. My husband had never been married, and he was a college graduate from Morehouse," Cuff said. He said he fell in love with Carolyn after their encounter at the restaurant because she had a great personality and was very loving, especially toward her children.
"She has that burning desire to succeed at whatever she has an interest in," he said.
In the "Herbal Minute" on his wife's show, Warren Cuff will promote the use of various herbs for good health.
One of Cuff's biggest fans is her oldest child, John Johnson, 23, a computer science major at the University of Maryland. "My mother has a lot of determination. She persisted like a soldier. She was going to stay with it until the battle was over."
Cuff said: "My ultimate goal is to go out and teach other people that they can be successful in anything that comes to their creative minds. We live in America, the land of liberty, and people need to understand that they are free to be anything that they want to be."
CAPTION: Carolyn Cuff, relaxing in her Adelphi home, is host of a talk show on the gospel station WYCB on Sunday afternoons. "Many people go to church, but when they come out, they fall back into their same way of thinking," Cuff said.