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In Southwest Philly, a merry hearth-warming Christmas story

Minnie Moore-Johnson, known for her decades of community service, is now on the receiving end of the “art of giving.”

Steve Lowry, (second from right), owner of Lowry Services, is donating a $15,000 heating and cooling system to Leonard Johnson (left) and wife Minnie Moore-Johnson. Looking on is comfort consultant Dave Schwab.
Steve Lowry, (second from right), owner of Lowry Services, is donating a $15,000 heating and cooling system to Leonard Johnson (left) and wife Minnie Moore-Johnson. Looking on is comfort consultant Dave Schwab.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

LONGTIME COMMUNITY activist Minnie Moore-Johnson grew up poor and spent part of her childhood as a migrant farm worker, traveling from her native Brooklyn, N.Y., to the deep South with her family.

After moving to Philadelphia as a teenager, Moore-Johnson became a social worker who gained national acclaim for feeding hundreds of elderly and poor people with annual Thanksgiving Day meals.

"People used to give to my family when I was growing up, so it was always important to me to give back to others," Moore-Johnson, who is small and wiry with short curly hair, said at the dining room table in the Southwest Philadelphia home she shares with her husband, Leonard Johnson.

Moore-Johnson has been honored by four U.S. presidents - Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton - in addition to the hundreds of awards she's received from city and state officials.

The citations and photographs with Clinton, former Attorney General Janet Reno, the late Rev. Leon H. Sullivan, U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, and countless others, fill all four walls in the front room of the Johnsons' three-story, castle-like "lonely" rowhouse on Woodland Avenue, near 55th.

But this Christmas, Lowry Services, a heating, electrical and plumbing company in Montgomery County, is giving a very special gift to the Johnsons -- a new central heating and air conditioning system worth at least $15,000.

Lowry is donating the system at no cost to the Johnsons, said Steve Lowry, the company owner.

Describing himself as a man of faith and a Christian, Lowry said he was impressed by Moore-Johnson's years of community work and service to others.

"Every winter around this time, we try to help somebody, just to give back to the community we serve," he said.

Some years, that meant donating a furnace to a family on hard times.

"But this is probably one of the biggest [donated] jobs we've run into," Lowry said.

Workers began installing duct-work last Thursday, and Lowry said they had hoped to finish yesterday.

"At the latest, we will complete it by the 24th, even if we have to work on Christmas Eve."

At age 75, Moore-Johnson hasn't retired from community service.

She is program coordinator of Fathers and Children Together, or FACT, which helps incarcerated fathers at Graterford Prison become better parents through one-on-one visits with their children.

Last Friday, when a newspaper photographer came to take pictures of Lowry and the heating company workers, two staffers from a Mural Arts Program project that works with FACT, Robyn Buseman and Dawan Williams, came knocking on Moore-Johnson's door.

The Mural Arts workers had come to talk to Moore-Johnson about plans for the Christmas party for the children who have visited their fathers in prison. Moore-Johnson has also earned a doctorate in criminal justice.

Leonard Johnson said when Moore-Johnson isn't at the FACT office, which is just down the street, people know to ring their doorbell if they need food or a place to stay if they are being evicted.

"I fell in love with her spirit first," said Johnson, 73. "We are best friends."

The two have been married 19 years and have 32 grandchildren between them. When talking to a reporter, Johnson often began a sentence and Moore-Johnson would finish it.

Not looking for favors

For years, Moore-Johnson and her husband used small baseboard heaters and blowers throughout their three-story house. But it still always felt cold, she said.

Lowry estimated the Johnsons' house is about 100 years old. It sits all alone on Woodland Avenue, near 55th Street, with a maroon awning out front that says "Johnson's ."

The house fits what the web site, City Lab, describes as "a lonely rowhouse without a row," because all of the other houses on the block have been torn down. A large colorful mural about fathers and children adorns the west wall of the house, facing 55th Street.

A heating company salesman said the absence of shared walls from torn-down adjacent rowhouses makes the Johnsons' house especially drafty and cold in the winter.

David Schwab, a Lowry design consultant, said Moore-Johnson didn't want to accept the charitable gift at first.

"This is a person who is deserving, but was not demanding or expecting anything," Schwab said.

"I said, 'No, no, we want to do this for you.'"

This story began last month, when Moore-Johnson called several heating companies seeking estimates for a heating system.

Schwab was the first - and only - salesman to respond. He first visited them on Dec. 1.

Schwab said the dozen small heaters were a major fire hazard.

"They're not safe," he said. "You overload the electrical current, and it overheats the wiring in the walls and can start a fire . . . Not only that, we think they're spending about $1,000 to $1,500 a month on electrical bills."

After Schwab went through pricing options, the Johnsons settled on a plan - for heat only - that would cost $15,000.

However, the Johnsons didn't qualify for financing.

He said Moore-Johnson told him most of their money has gone to helping others over the years.

"She has a heart of gold, but not a lot of gold," Schwab said.

The Johnsons told him they would continue using the small heaters, but would save money and call back next fall to get a heating system by next winter.

"I left her house and called my company owner and told him, 'I've got an interesting situation,'" Schwab recalled.

He told Lowry he had met this woman with all these awards for community service all over her living room, but she didn't qualify for financing.

"I asked him if maybe there's something we can do for her. He's a man of faith and said he wanted to pray on it over night."

At 8 a.m. the next morning, Lowry called Schwab and told him: "We want to take care of Ms. Johnson."

Schwab asked Lowry how much would the company pay for.

And Lowry told him: "We're going to take care of all of it."

Later that day, Schwab and Lowry drove out to meet the Johnsons. The first thing Lowry said to Moore-Johnson, she said, was: "I've heard of you."

Lowry, 64, said he's been a Christian for 34 years. He prays every morning, every night and all throughout the day.

"When I pray about something, I get a sense of what I'm supposed to do," he said.

At the first meeting, Lowry found out the Johnsons are also Christians. Leonard Johnson is a deacon at Wayland Memorial Baptist Church on Baltimore Avenue, at 52nd Street; Moore-Johnson is a deaconess.

"I liked them immediately," Lowry said. "I felt like we are brothers and sisters in Christ."

When she learned Lowry was donating not only a new heating system, but also a central air system, Moore-Johnson said, "I was just overwhelmed."

Schwab said the company is putting in a top-of-the-line heat pump, by Carrier, and is providing the same 10-year warranty it gives all customers.

"We're not cutting any corners," he said.

Moore-Johnson said the spotlight on this story belongs not to her but to the contractor. "I don't want this story to be about me," she said, "but about Mr. Lowry and the 'art of giving.'

"Sometimes, when you give to others, you never know when someone is going to pay it forward."


On Twitter: @ValerieRussDN