Man finds way out of despair after loss of wife, one child

Advocate staff photo by ADAM LAU --  Johnny Anderson and his son Jonah Anderson, 4, from left, pose for a portrait outside their home in Baton Rouge on Wednesday, Dec. 12. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by ADAM LAU -- Johnny Anderson and his son Jonah Anderson, 4, from left, pose for a portrait outside their home in Baton Rouge on Wednesday, Dec. 12.

The first Christmas after losing his wife and child in a drowning accident, Johnny Anderson spiraled into overwhelming sadness and sought a counselor’s help.

This Christmas, he plans to celebrate with extended family and his surviving son, Jonah Glenn, at his Baton Rouge home.

By Christmas 2013, Anderson aims to be ready to fulfill his late wife’s dream of spending the holiday at Walt Disney World in Florida.

“My wife was a huge Christmas person. We loved Christmas,” he said. “The day after Thanksgiving, the house would look like a winter wonderland. After we got the boys, it intensified.”

Prayer, family, friends and a 4-year-old energetic little boy are propelling Anderson through a devastating loss.

In May 2010, Anderson’s 2-year-old son Jonathan rode his tricycle into the family’s swimming pool. Anderson’s wife, Sonja, jumped into the pool after him despite not knowing how to swim. Both perished, cutting in half a family of four.

“When you’ve cried and wept all you can, then you have to move forward,” Anderson said.

Anderson is well known in state government circles. He worked for former Gov. Kathleen Blanco, and served as chairman of the Southern University System board.

Now he works full-time in the ministry and part-time for the National Baptist Convention.

State Rep. Sam Jones said Anderson shares a biblical devotion with him three or four times a week. Jones, D-Franklin, and Anderson worked together in the Blanco administration.

Jones said Anderson relies on his faith for inner strength and a deep moral compass.

“His great loss will never be forgotten by him, but in that he lives that way. It has helped him to keep going forward,” Jones said.

A year after the accident, Anderson created a foundation in his family’s honor. The Sonja and Jonathan Anderson Aquatics Foundation is supposed to teach families how to swim and raise awareness of water safety.

Anderson said the foundation has about $12,000 in the bank, including $10,000 raised last year at the “party with a purpose” he held for his 50th birthday.

Once fundraising reaches $25,000, Anderson said he will start giving out scholarships for swimming lessons.

Anderson still lives in the Valley Forge Avenue home he shared with his wife of 13 years. The swimming pool still is the focal point of the back yard. Property is purchased elsewhere. House plans are drawn up. Still, Anderson stays where he is.

“I want to move, and then I don’t want to move. All the memories are here,” he said.

Sonja Anderson was the daughter of a minister. She and Anderson connected through the National Baptist Convention, and were engaged within seven months.

In 2006, the couple weathered allegations that Anderson sexually harassed female Southern employees. The university board sided with and cleared Anderson.

“That could have destroyed our marriage. It was meant to harm me, but it hurt my wife’s feelings. But we lived through it,” Anderson said.

The couple later welcomed fraternal twins. Sonja Anderson juggled a full-time job working with constituents at the state Attorney General’s Office, the family’s home, cooking, and two young boys.

Of the twins, Jonathan was the daredevil who loved jumping into the water, Anderson said. Jonah Glenn was outside with his mother and brother when the accident happened, but did not get into the pool.

Subsequent swimming lessons left Jonah Glenn feeling comfortable in a pool.

“He’s not afraid of the water. He’s not an Olympic swimmer, but he can swim,” Anderson said.

Anderson’s life revolves around his son, who participates in soccer, arts and music, in addition to attending pre-kindergarden. He is considering putting his thoughts together for a book to chronicle the emotions of losing a loved one, going to the funeral home to pick out a coffin and making the trip to the graveyard.

“Faith, and then my son,” he said, of how he has endured. “Having him around and challenging me every day. He’s my mission.”