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Angel in the Midst

A child's death prompts a father's search for comfort.


Johnson is working on a project he hopes will bring some comfort, if not solidarity, to a community of people like himself — parents and families who've lost a child. And if his wish comes true, a bronze angel soon will serve in memory of children throughout Richmond whose brief presence on earth still touches the hearts and lives of those who loved them.

The effort, Johnson says, has been both serendipitous and bittersweet. At the time of his daughter's death, Johnson was an Internet neophyte. But in the wake of despair and not knowing what else to do, he learned to navigate an unknown world. He spent countless hours online researching everything from infant mortality to handmade memorials. He was looking for something other than a traditional headstone to mark Reagan's grave. "I was looking for an angel," he says. Oddly, he kept coming across the same one.

Web sites refer to it as the "Christmas Box Angel" or the "Angel of Hope." The story of the angel began to intrigue Johnson.

It goes something like this: In 1992, children's book author and novelist Richard Paul Evans wrote a story for his two young daughters. After many failed attempts to find a publisher, Evans published the story, called "The Christmas Box," himself. It went on to become a New York Times best seller with more than 8 million copies in print worldwide. The story tells of an elderly woman who had mourned the loss of her child at the base of an angel monument. Though his work is fiction, Evans, a Utahan, describes an angel monument that once existed in a Salt Lake City cemetery but is speculated to have been destroyed. Evans commissioned fellow Utahans, father-and-son sculptors Ortho and Jared Fairbanks, to create a new statue after hearing reports that grieving parents were seeking the angel as a place to grieve and heal.

When the sculpture was completed in 1994, a dedication ceremony was held in the Salt Lake City cemetery. According to newspaper accounts, nearly 200 people showed up, most of them grieving for children they had lost. Since then, the gathering has become an annual event each Dec. 6. And in the meantime, nearly 50 other angels have been erected around the nation in cities such as Atlanta and St. Louis. Johnson is hoping Richmond will be next.

"It all kind of snapped together," he says of how the project recently has gained momentum. For months, Johnson negotiated with several locations throughout Richmond — such as a cancer victims' garden — that he considered suitable sites for the 4-by-5-foot statue. But he found no takers. Then he thought of Hollywood. He proffered the angel statue idea to Hollywood Cemetery's director, David Gilliam, who brought the matter before the cemetery's advisory committee. Johnson was amazed, he recalls, when Hollywood donated a 20-by-30-foot triangular plot in its new section along Idlewood Avenue as home for the statue. (Gilliam did not return calls for comment.)

Memorializing baby Reagan is not the reason he wanted to bring an "Angel of Hope" to Richmond, Johnson stresses. (The nearest one, he points out, is in Fayetteville, N.C.) The Johnson family has marked Reagan's grave in the new section of Hollywood with its own private white-marble statue of an angel. "This is for the community," he says of the bronze angel he envisions nearby.

Last month, Johnson approached A.P. Grappone and Sons, master carvers of memorials and monuments, to see about a base for the statue. When Tony Grappone — who had lost his only son, Matthew, tragically in 1996 — learned of Johnson's project, he and his brother, Albert, pledged to donate the stone. Albert Grappone says Johnson's effort strikes a poign-ant chord for anyone who has dealt with loss. "We were glad to contribute," he adds.

"We got on the subject of granite, then the angel," Johnson says. He invokes Grappone's exact words: "'It's taken care of; it's done.'"

This gesture "overwhelmed" Johnson, he says. In addition, the Greater Richmond chapter of Stop Child Abuse Now has agreed to serve as the nonprofit agency accepting donations for the statue, thus ensuring the project's tax-exempt status. With the site, the base and paperwork in place for the statue, Johnson says he'll focus on fund raising. After all, the bronze angel with the word "hope" inscribed under its wing will cost $12,500. But Johnson appears undaunted. When he speaks of it, it's hard not to hear his own sense of hope, which must be equally welcome and hard to come by. S

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