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Son's overdose moves Manor musician to songs

| Wednesday, March 19, 2014, 12:31 a.m.
Louis B. Ruediger | Leader Times
Susan Johns, 57, of Manor recently released her second song inspired by the heroin overdose death of her son, Zachary Zion.

A Manor Township woman whose son died from a heroin overdose in 2002 while at a party in an East Franklin hotel, has found healing through music.

Susan K. Johns, 57, has written songs and played music her whole life — but until recently, never recorded her original compositions. That changed when she started writing and recording songs inspired by the death of her 17-year-old son, Zachary Zion.

She recorded and copyrighted her first jazz song, “Words can't Take Away My Tears,” in August. Her second song, “I'm Waiting Today,” was released two weeks ago. Both songs were released under the name Suzy Kay.

“When this happened with Zack, I tried to help other kids,” Johns said. “Now, maybe I can help more people through my music.”

Johns said she never had the confidence to record her songs until she started to get feedback from her family and friends. Among those showing support for Johns's music was her sister, Barbara Jo Stanley.

“Everyone believes in my sister more than she believes in herself,” wrote Stanley in an email from her South Carolina home.

And although Johns has made more than $300 dollars on her songs so far, with fans from as far away as New Zealand and Australia, she said it's not about the money.

“This is my soul's outpouring,” she said.

At home in her music room — built by her husband, Jim — Johns finds the solitude she needs to write and compose. Several guitars lean against the wall. Sam, her long-haired Chihuahua, curls up on a sofa near her keyboard and flute.

Johns smiles and laughs easily recalling her lifelong love of music —how she used to play her harmonica in the woods near her grandparents farm in Kittanning Township, or how she would play her flute near the train tracks in McGrann.

But despite her warm smile, Johns' grief is always present. It's there in her eyes as she talks about her blond-haired, blue-eyed boy who loved to play baseball.

He had been a senior at Ford City High School when he died. He was a member of the varsity and junior varsity baseball team, Leo Club, Student Council and Students Against Drunk Driving.

“Time doesn't heal,” she said. “But it does move you to a new place.”

She wrote the lyrics to her first recorded song after reading her journal entries following Zack's death and recalled how people had tried to offer words of comfort to help ease her pain.

She composed the music to go with it and was encouraged by Mark Kamer of Ford City to record her song with her own vocals and flute accompaniment. Kamer — who has a recording studio in his home —arranged, mastered and produced Johns' music.

“He pushed me the whole way through it. Mark made it into something magic,” she said.

Her second song came in a flash of inspiration during a rainstorm in late August when she drove her all-terrain four-wheeler out into the woods behind her house.

“I went out in that cold rain and lightning and had an idea,” she said. “The whole song came at once, and I wrote it in 20 minutes.”

Another local musician, Wally Panchik Jr., laid down the guitar track for that song.

Susan's music needs to be shared, Stanley said.

“Zack would be so very proud of his mother,” she said.

The album cover depicts the sun's rays shining through storm clouds.

“I can hear the sound of your voice in the storm above … I can feel all your love,” Susan sings. “I'm just waiting to hear the words, the words you forgot to say.”

Brigid Beatty is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-543-1303 or bbeatty@tribweb.com.

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