Tom Johnson always worried when his youngest daughter, Tiffany, was halfway around the world, working as a missionary in places that he thought of as dangerous. He wanted her home, where he thought she’d be safe.
“I would call her and say, ‘Tiffany, please get out of Egypt. Tiffany, please get out of Africa. Please, come home,’ ” he told TODAY co-host Meredith Vieira on Wednesday. “And then of course she comes home and ...”
Johnson, speaking from his home in Chisholm, Minn., couldn’t finish the sentence. Just after midnight last Saturday, she was one of two young missionaries killed by a gunman at Youth With a Mission in a Denver suburb. Some 12 hours later, the same gunman, identified as Matthew Murray, killed two more people at a mega-church in Colorado Springs before taking his own life during a shootout with a security guard.
Coping with the senseless and random act of violence that took his daughter has been hard.
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“We went from anger to somewhat of a knowledge that she’s with the Lord now, and that’s where she wants to be,” he told Vieira. “It’s tough. But now I know she’s in a better place.”
He said he and his family keep going by thinking of what a wonderful, loving and giving person Tiffany Johnson had been. She was 26 when she died and entering the last year of her mission work. She had a boyfriend, Dan Griebenow, who was wounded in the attack.
“Tiffany was the most caring person,” her father said. “She was loving. She loved children. She wanted just to promote the Lord’s word. She did it in such a fashion, that she hardly had to talk – her smile, her dimples said everything.”
“I have never known a more dynamic woman, Julie Tivhen, a fellow missionary, told NBC News. “She wanted to travel the world. She wanted to be a mom. She wanted to have a degree in at least 25 different things. She wanted to start a business and own real estate and take pictures and do pottery and learn to cook exotic foods and anything you could imagine that would make life more vibrant for her or for someone around her.”
“She would walk into a room and somebody was hurting, and she knew who it was and she would hug them,” said another fellow missionary, Toni Lafanlandra. “Or somebody was so happy about some good news, she would be so excited with them.”
She loved to hike and fish and snowboard and travel, and she used her interests and activities to meet others.
Since her death, her family has been getting phone calls from around the United States and the world. “She touched so many people, Meredith,” he said. “We have been getting calls from Texas, New York, California, Africa, the church. I did not realize how many seeds she planted and how many people she loved.”
Johnson has another daughter, Corrina, 28, who is married and has a son and a daughter. Tiffany, her family said, loved playing the role of “auntie” to the children. Most of all, she just loved people.
Her father’s favorite memory is of the times she would cuddle in the crook of his arm and watch a movie with him, usually a Disney movie.
“She would just sit and rub my hand, rub my finger and not say a word, just rub my finger and watch the movie,” he said, smiling at the image.
The family has started a memorial fund in her name, the Tiffany Johnson Memorial Fund, and will soon have a Web site where people can make contributions.
“She always liked to giggle and laugh and joke around,” her father said. “She was a little bit of a jokester too. The only thing that keeps myself and my family going at this point is thinking of these positives.”
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