Myrna Faye Cambron Johnson was born March 8, 1939, in Birmingham, Ala., the only child of Edward and Myrtle Cambron. She died April 2, 2011, in Lilburn, Ga., her home of 35 years.
She grew up in Alabama and attended Birmingham Baptist Hospitals School of Nursing (now the Ida V. Moffett School of Nursing), graduating in 1960.
As part of her training, Myrna traveled with her class to north Florida that year, where she went on a date with a local boy. That boy was not Mel Johnson. But he introduced her to Mel — and that was the biggest mistake of that young man’s life.
Mel declared to his buddies the next morning that he was going to marry that “cute, beautiful woman” who looked more than a little bit like Elizabeth Taylor. “I had made up my mind,” he says.
Three weeks later, he up and married her. That was 51 years ago.
Thirty-five years ago, give or take a couple, Mel and Myrna enrolled in a stop-smoking clinic — against her wishes, it should be noted. There, they met Doug Edwards, and quickly afterward Linda. That was the start of an inspirational friendship that survives to this day.
Through Linda and Doug, Mel and Myrna started volunteering with the American Cancer Society, finding a cause to which Myrna devoted the rest of her life: working to eradicate cancer and to alleviate the suffering of those with it.
Myrna was Robin to Linda’s Batman, trekking across the state (and many parts of the rest of the country) for workshops and leadership conferences, training the volunteers who continue that campaign today and pioneering initiatives that helped launched the Relay for Life.
She and Mel shared senior volunteer leadership positions with the Cancer Society’s Gwinnett County and Georgia divisions. So closely identified was she with the American Cancer Society that in 1993, the Gwinnett unit made her only the second winner of the unit’s Martha and John Adams Award for Volunteer of the Year, after Martha Adams herself.
Myrna fought cancer herself with a bulldog’s determination. As a friend put it, “she kicked cancer’s ass five times before it figured out it had to take her seriously.”
But even as she stared down cancer, she was the quintessential Southern lady, 4 feet, 11 inches and 100 pounds’ worth of old-school charm, graciousness and peculiar squeamishness.
She could unflinchingly bring 200-pound men in cardiac arrest back to life with her nurse’s training, but if you so much as said the word “mouse,” she was up on the table screaming her head off.
And while, like a proper Southerner should, she loved to fish, she was never, ever able to bait her own hook. The worms were too icky.
She was the same way with escalators. One time, she and Mel helped organize a huge fancy-dress benefit in downtown Atlanta. The only way you could get to the venue was by one of those long escalators.
That wouldn’t do, so off went Mel in search of some other way to get there — through the kitchen and the delivery bay to the freight elevator, Mel resplendent in his tuxedo and Myrna decked out in her evening gown.
Not many people knew that Myrna was also quite the card shark. In the summer, when my sister, Alesia, and I were out of school, whenever Mel would be out of town on a case, there’d often be a knock on my bedroom door about midnight, and there would be Myrna with a deck of cards in her hand.
It was always gin rummy, and she had sandbagging down to a science. “I don’t know why I bother. This is silly. I never get the right cards.” Then her turn would come and it was “bang, bang, bang, bang — gin” with this self-satisfied little grin on her face.
Myrna never denied her love for beautiful things, and she surrounded herself, her family and her friends with them. Many people remember her as proprietor of the Victorian Rose, the antiques shop she ran in Lilburn for almost 15 years. Her home was even more spectacular, filled with Victorian-themed rose antique dolls and china.
It wasn’t always that way. When Mel and Alesia first scoped out that big house on Velva Way, it was a wreck. “She can’t possibly want it,” Alesia said. But Myrna said she had a vision for it, and for the next 30 years, she transformed it into a place of beauty. Some of you will recognize that process, known to all as “Myrnarizing.”
Myrna’s living room. Nothing in her home was kept off-limits as a showpiece. This was the daily family room.
Myrna embraced my wife and in-laws — who are the Yankee-est Yankees ever created — and immediately made them a part of the family. She and Mel took in both her parents near the end of their lives, and even her father, Edward, a dour Scotsman, softened some of his rough edges there.
If you could sum up Myrna, it would be this way, as Mel puts it: Everything she did, she did well, and she always left the place prettier than it was when she got there.
I’m not a believer, but I still like to think that right about now, some startled angel is being ordered to get his feet off her carpet, because a cloud is being Myrnarized.