Derek B. Johnson

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Derek B. Johnson, 32; helped children's dreams come true

In the dreamy land of California, Derek B. Johnson once helped an ailing boy meet Shaquille O'Neal and a sick girl visit Disneyland.

A small-town New Jersey boy, Derek divided his time between two coasts, and came to Rhode Island to work for an Internet-security company with a Fortune 500 client list.

But before he moved to West Warwick last year, he helped children with life-threatening diseases live out their fantasies.

"He was a shining star," said Michelle Wells of the Make-A-Wish Foundation of Orange County, in Tustin, Calif.

In less than two years, the 32-year-old volunteer helped the charity grant eight wishes to children -- a significant number, Wells said. Despite the emotional toll of working with children stricken by terrible illnesses, Derek was a tireless worker who got "down on his hands and knees to talk to children," Wells said.

He also sold tickets to the fire department's annual pancake breakfast.

"Derek wanted to help, to give and to serve," Wells said. "Derek was a man of tremendous character."

"He was born that way," says his mother, Patricia, in Anaheim, Calif. "He was the most loving person. He took everything in stride."

Derek's generosity may have been shaped by an early life in Harmony, N.J., a small town near the Pennsylvania border. His father, Robert, was an electronics repairman who eventually opened a shop in Easton.

Derek graduated from Trebas Recording Institute in Hollywood. A movie buff, skydiver and singer, he attended North Hampton Community College in Bethlehem, Pa.

Both Derek and his brother Robert Jr. took jobs with Zoneoftrust, a California Internet-security company.

When the Waltham, Mass.-based Guardent Inc. bought Zoneoftrust, Robert Jr. stayed in California and Derek moved to West Warwick to work in Guardent's Providence office as a security-operations manager.

When Great White appeared at The Station, Derek and four other Guardent employees went to the concert.

Two survived the fire. Derek, Scott Griffith and Ryan Morin did not.

"We're a very close-knit organization," said Jennifer Haas, a spokeswoman for the 140-person company, which held a memorial service for the victims. "It was like losing family members."

Derek, she said, "was one of those managers you rarely come across. He put his team first. And he always had a smile on his face."

Robert Jr., who attended the memorial, agreed.

"He was everybody's best friend. He was my best friend."

-- Paul Davis, Providence Journal staff

Published in The Providence Journal on Mar. 20, 2003
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