Grandmother’s love carries family during tragedy

Willie Bea Johnson sits at a memorial to her grandson, Deeunta Ceaser, who was shot to death in Johnson's home Nov. 3. Johnson said she just wants to thank the community and for people to remember Ceaser for his smile and kindness to others. Photo by Chuck Vandenberg/PCC

“Grandma” Bea Johnson doesn’t hold systems responsible for Deeunta Ceaser’s murder

BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
PCC EDITOR

FORT MADISON – You would think a tragedy of a young man shot down before even the prime of his life would be met with emotion and angry cries of why – and how.

But Willie Bea Johnson, or grandma Bea as she was known, the grandmother of Deeunta Ceaser, has a different approach – to tell a story about a 15-year-old boy and the lives he touched in such a short period of time.

Ceaser was shot and killed in Johnson’s home in the 4200 block of Avenue L 12 days ago. Bea Johnson isn’t to the point yet where she’s asking why. She wants people to know the story of her grandson.

Lee County Attorney Ross Braden has charged Dimari “DJ” Meredith, 17, of Fort Madison, with first-degree murder for allegedly shooting Deeunta in his bedroom on Nov. 3 at about 5 p.m. Meredith is currently being held at the Southeast Iowa Juvenile Detention Center on a $1 million cash-only bond.

Ceaser’s funeral was held at King-Lynk Funeral Home on Monday, Nov. 8. Johnson said the visitation was non stop from about noon to 5 p.m.

“I greeted each and every one of the kids that was there and asked them, ‘What did Deeunta bring out in you?’ and they all gave me some beautiful stories… beautiful stories,” she said.

There was another celebration of Deeunta’s life in Jackson, Mississippi where he was born and lived until 2018 when they moved to Fort Madison after his aunt got a job at Scott’s Miracle-Gro.

Johnson said there were so many people, that she ran out of Thank You cards. When she got back to Fort Madison she didn’t have any to hand out at the local funeral.

“I had cards in my mailbox when we came back from Jackson. They just had “To D Family” written on them with no return address. I think I got a hundred cards or so here,” she said.

“I wanna put it out there for everybody here in Fort Madison how thankful we are.

“People brought food, meat and drinks and everything over here and it showed how this community is.”

Fort Madison High School Creative Learning Center instructor Debora Hentzel talks with Willie “Grandma” Bea Johnson Monday afternoon around pictures and flowers in memory of Deeunta Ceaser. Hentzel had Ceaser as part of her program. Johnson is the 15-year-old’s grandmother. Photo by Chuck Vandenberg/PCC

Johnson moved with the family to Fort Madison in 2018 after Deeunta’s mother was offered a position with Scott’s Miracle-Gro. Since that time Johnson said Deeunta tried to be a leader at school.

“He was a good kid growing up and he liked math. That was his favorite. But everyone liked him in school. He was a little rowdy, but you know when he sees grandma coming over there, he shut it down. He shut it down in a hurry,” she said with a laugh.

“When he first walked into school here he was like the king of that school. Everybody was looking at him and he became famous very quick. He played football and basketball. “Big Dee” is what they used to call him,” she said with a little thunder in her voice.

“He used to have this little high top in his hair and they would see how many pencils they could put in his hair per day. He walked around all day with those in his hair. I thought that was cute.”

She said he was outgoing and wanted everyone to like him. That personality has come back through people the family has met over the past three years.

“Everyone I met through Dee has been the nicest people. Even the hospital ladies were saying how nice he was up there being polite. The Rent-A-Center lady… everybody who know him know he had a smile all the time. That was him right there. I can’t show you a picture that he doesn’t have a smile on,” she said.

“I can show you all pictures of Deeunta and you will not see a frown. You always see a beautiful smile. He shows all them teeth, and all them braces we put on – he oughta be pretty showin’ all them teeth,” she said laughing again.

“No, Dee was always smiling. We had a nice talk on the way to school that Wednesday morning. He was going to be 16 next month. His car was out there and he had his driver’s license. He talked about how he was going to use the grill to grill hot dogs for everybody that came over for his birthday. He had it all lined up before this happened to him.”

Johnson has spent a lifetime trying to keep her sons and grandsons away from dangerous lives.

The family grew up on Hill Avenue in Jackson where drugs and gangs were rampant. She said she did all she could to keep the boys from getting involved in drugs and gangs and that element.

“Where we was staying at on Hill Avenue, there was a lot of drugs and gangs and I had five boys in my house. I had Jeremiah (Turner), Jasper, Reuben, Deeunta, and Dekari (Ceaser) and I did all I could to keep those boys from turning to gangs, getting involved in drugs, and stuff like that.”

One of her focus points became the kitchen. She even attracted an author who was writing a book entitled “Getting Something to Eat in Jackson” where he focused on African American life in the urban south where food was used to explore the culture of race and and class structure.

Chapter 8 of the book written by Joseph C. Ewoodzie, Jr. is called Miss Bea. Johnson points to the book, sitting near a memorial to her grandson, not as a nod to her prowess in the kitchen, but how she used that to keep the boys’ attentions.

“This isn’t about me, this is about Deeunta, but (Ewoodzie) followed me for about three years while he wrote that book,” she said.

“When Deeunta was about seven he asked the man how he liked his eggs for breakfast. Deeunta was gonna over-scramble or over-easy some eggs and make him a couple pieces of bacon.”

Next to the book in the memorial were about eight pictures of Deeunta, including a black-and-white photo that had an inscription on it “One Love” from his brother Dekari, that Grandma Bea had printed over the top talking about individuality and being a leader.

She said she still was working on additional parts to the image. She wanted to include a statement that captured who Deeunta was.

She said she was toying with ideas like “Be Unique Like Me” or “Silence the Gun Violence”.

She hasn’t settled on the right phraseology yet.

Johnson said she never got a sense that anything had gone sideways or her grandson was in danger.

“You never see nothin’ like this coming – you never do. I had a nephew die in jail. They said he wouldn’t make it until his 21st birthday and they made it true. Maybe a week before his birthday, they killed him right there in that jail,” she said.

“You always have to watch your back, but un-uh, you don’t see stuff like this coming.”

Johnson said he hadn’t made a career choice, but enjoyed the summer enrichment programs at Southeastern Community College, so he may have wanted to go to college.

A fan of music, he would be in the bathroom at 7:30 a.m. for close to an hour and would wake her up with loud music playing from the room.

Debora Hentzel, a Creative Learning Instructor at Fort Madison High School said Deeunta joined the program as a sophomore, but did most of his work in another CLC classroom.

She said he was earning credits toward graduation and was close to earning two more.

“I think a lot about that,” she said.

Ceaser hadn’t told Hentzel about his plans after high school, either.

But Johnson said he had qualities of a leader.

“He wasn’t a fightin’ kinda guy, and not a fussin’ kinda guy. He was a pretty quiet guy that liked to be a leader. I used to tell him back when he was in fifth grade, when he’d always be getting in trouble with the teachers or students, I told him to quit being the clown of the class and start being the leader,” she said.

“When he got up here he had changed his whole self and everybody just fell in love with him. That’s what I say – they fell in love with him.”

Ceaser rode his bike to a part-time job at Fareway for the past five or six months and would enjoy helping people take their groceries out and talk with the customers. She said the neighbors used to help him fix flats he would get riding the bike to and from work.

Johnson said she doesn’t feel any system in the community has failed her or her family.

“I gotta be strong. I can’t be the weak link around here. I gotta be strong and that’s what I teach my boys. Keep going on – it’s out there for you, you just have to find it. Don’t get frustrated,” she said.

“You gonna flip up stones. Some you gonna find worms and some you ain’t. But you gotta keep flipping ’til you find that worm if you wanna go fishin.”

She said Deeunta was an organ donor and his death will have some hope and salvation for others.

But she won’t waste time getting bogged down in the investigation into her grandson’s death. Time will reveal the truth there.

“There’s a billion and one stories out there about what happened and there ain’t one of ’em true. But that smile on his face – that’s worth 1,000 words right there,” she said pointing to one of the pictures in the memorial.

“I don’t have anything to hide. I always want my family to have a smile on their face and that’s what I can do for them. What I can’t do for them – so be it, life goes on. There was a lotta nights I went to bed with nothing in my stomach, but they was full. Lot of times, but it’s no big deal. It’s what you do.

“I just wanna think about what I got going on now. Me lovin’ Dee. I don’t care much about anything else right now.”

The family is planning a balloon launch on Dec. 29. That’s Deeunta’s 16th birthday. The launch is planned for 5 p.m.

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