It’s been three years since Tom Johnson and Leslie Ann Jones were found murdered in their Oak Park home during the height of the COVID-19 lockdown, but their friends and family continue to find ways to honor the married couple by supporting causes that were near and dear to their hearts in life.
One such cause – ensuring children have loving, stable families – is the mission of the nonprofit A House in Austin, the beneficiary of a new memorial for Johnson and Jones. In a ceremony July 22, a tree will be planted, and a room renamed in the couple’s honor at the nonprofit’s Austin headquarters at 533 N. Pine Ave.
The tree itself is a personal gift to the nonprofit from the couple’s longtime friend John Tuhey, who chose to plant a dogwood in the front yard of a House in Austin. The arboreal specimen was selected to be viewed as a sign of renewal and growth, not a symbol of the loss, which resonated with the nonprofit’s leadership while also reflecting Johnson and Jones’s dreams for Chicago’s Austin neighborhood.
“Every year it will bloom, and we will be reminded of the couple and how much they cared about the Austin community, wanting to see it so much better than it currently is,” said Lynette Kelly-Bell, co-executive director of A House in Austin.
The tree will be covered in pink blossoms come spring, coinciding with the April 13 anniversary of Johnson’s and Jones’s deaths, which are still under investigation by the Oak Park Police Department. Tuhey wanted something beautiful and uplifting to mark that somber occasion.
“It flowers every year in spring, right around the time that they passed,” he said.
Tuhey, along with his wife Kelley, organized a wider gift to A House in Austin with the blessings of the couple’s sons. The agency’s parent education room is being renamed the “Fair Oaks Room” after Fair Oaks Avenue, the street Johnson and Jones lived on. The room is integral in the services the agency provides to its clients, serving as the location of the weekly parent chat and parent café support sessions. It’s also a space just for parents to carry out tasks that they might not be able to do elsewhere.
“Parents use the space individually to hang out, complete school assignments, secure employment through the use of our laptops,” said Kelly-Bell.
The room is connected to the nonprofit’s kitchen, so it’s also used as the site of the nonprofit’s healthy cooking classes. Parents often use it to meal prep before heading home.
Not directly naming the room after Johnson and Jones was an express wish of their children, according to Tuhey. The couple, despite their prolific law careers and long history of volunteer work, were humble and unassuming. Everyone involved believed the couple would not want their names to overshadow that of the organization’s and the work it does. Their names are only featured on the invitations to the upcoming ceremony in the hopes that they will draw in greater publicity and revenue for A House in Austin.
“They want A House in Austin to benefit from this gift,” Tuhey said of the sons.
Johnson and Jones did not have a connection to A House in Austin during their lives, but it was chosen as the beneficiary by their sons, one of whom volunteered with the organization in the past.
During their lives, Johnson and Jones fostered children through Hephzibah Children’s Association. Jones, who was also extremely passionate about public art in communities, spent several years on Hephzibah’s board of directors. Hephizbah’s “Art Heals” therapy program was started in the couple’s memory, as was a scholarship program by the Oak Park Area Arts Council benefiting young female artists of color.
Both organizations received much attention following the couple’s passing and their sons wished to see the same level of consideration paid to A House in Austin, a local agency equally deserving that provides services for the benefit of the community, according to Tuhey. Charlie Johnson, one of the couple’s sons, told Wednesday Journal he and his brothers are “thrilled” with the work the nonprofit does.
“Providing support to young families is something our parents were very passionate about because investments in early life development produce even more well-rounded people,” said Johnson. “Especially in communities on Chicago’s West Side which have historically faced multiple systematic disadvantages.”
A House in Austin’s mission is to empower parents to address the cognitive, physical, social and emotional wellbeing of their children through programming that strengthens the family unit. It also provides education, assistance and childcare, as well as access to a kitchen and a laundry room, where clients can use washers and dryers free of charge.
“It touches directly to people,” said Tuhey, just as Johnson and Jones directly touched the lives of so many people who knew and loved them.