Mollie Tibbetts’ family shares the UI student’s legacy one year after her death
A little more than a year after UI student Mollie Tibbetts’ death, her family remembers her life and works to share her spirit with the community.
September 2, 2019
Hanging on the wall in Laura Calderwood’s bedroom is a self-portrait her daughter, Mollie Tibbetts, drew when she was 5.
The picture is large, and Mollie’s crayon-drawn face dominates the tan paper. Brown swirls of hair frame her circular face, and a red-crayon smile stretches up her cheeks. Teal, Mollie’s favorite color, is scribbled in the background and fills up the heart necklace worn around her neck.
Mollie offered to sell it to her mom for $5, which Calderwood just happened to have in her purse.
Laura smiled as she told the story, laughing at her daughter’s antics like it happened just yesterday.
A little more than one year after Mollie’s tragic murder, The Daily Iowan spoke with members of the former University of Iowa student’s family. While they still struggle with the realities of her death, Mollie’s legacy lives on.
Mollie was a smartass, her mom said, and a pack rat with a curious streak. Kim Calderwood, her sister and Mollie’s aunt, said she thought Mollie had no flaws; she was focused, hard-working, and amazing with kids.
“I never saw her without a smile on her face,” she said.
VIDEO: Laura Calderwood reflects on Mollie’s life and her grieving process
Morgan Collum, Mollie’s cousin, said they were as close as sisters. Because of both their physical and emotional connections, the two would play, laugh, and of course argue with each other.
Morgan said she loved Mollie dearly, but she was a person like everyone else. She had an old soul, she said, and brought a unique perspective to the world.
The trait all three women mentioned was Mollie’s goofball tendencies.
Morgan recalled one night when she, Mollie, and some friends were hanging out at Mollie’s house. They were stuck inside because of the rain, Morgan said, and they were playing truth or dare. A friend dared Mollie to go roll around in a mud puddle, and while she didn’t fulfill the dare completely, she did dance in the rain, to everyone’s amusement.
“That’s one that I think about sometimes if I’m feeling sad … it helps to think about some of the funny things we experienced together,” Morgan said.
During the summer of 2018, Mollie popped over to Kim’s house, where she was getting ready for a dinner she was hosting. When Mollie saw what Kim was making, she joked, “God, Kimmie, who makes soup in the summer?”
That was the last time Kim saw her.
Mollie went missing in July 2018, and her body was found about one month later on Aug. 21. Laura said she doesn’t really pay attention to the specific dates, although the six-month anniversary hit her hard when someone posted about it online. She said that prepared her for the one-year anniversary, and she brought her sons to Des Moines, where they had dinner with family.
“Your brain protects your heart from what it can’t handle,” she said.
Once a Hawkeye, always a Hawkeye
Mollie became a Hawkeye, following in her mother’s footsteps by attending the UI. She was working toward a major in psychology, and immersed herself deeply in campus life by joining Dance Marathon and getting a job at the Medical Education Research Facility café.
Laura found her love of art while studying at the UI, and encouraged Mollie to take art courses after she fulfilled some required classes. After Mollie’s death, Laura said it was hard for her to come back to Iowa City, because she knew how much Mollie loved the town.
“Mollie was really going to blossom in Iowa City,” she said.
Kim saw Mollie’s coming-of-age firsthand, as she works on campus. She and Mollie would meet at a bench in the Old Capitol Mall sometimes, and Kim would drive her back to Brooklyn. She said they became closer as Mollie settled into campus, and always looked forward to their talks in the car.
While Mollie was missing, Kim said in a tearful voice that she would park her car in the same spot every day and keep the doors unlocked, just in case Mollie showed up and needed a place to sit or hide. She would also go to the bench and look around. She said it took her a long time to be able to return to that bench.
“I thought… she could be here as well as anywhere else,” she said. “She could maybe make her way back here at some point.”
Mollie is still present on campus, Kim said, through the $3,500-worth of donations from her Dance Marathon account or the memorial fund that benefits the UI Stead Family Children’s Hospital psychiatric department.
When Laura planned Mollie’s funeral, she had mourners send donations to the Children’s Hospital in lieu of flowers. When she was asked which area of the hospital she would like to dedicate the funds, the answer was simple.
“Without even thinking the words just came out of my mouth, ‘Children and Adolescent Psychiatric Unit,’ because Mollie wanted to be a psychiatrist and she loved children,” Laura said.
Her presence sometimes emerges in more subtle ways.
Kim’s son stopped one day to speak to a homeless person. After handing out a Kindness Card, a card with a quote from a speech Mollie gave, the person said they knew Mollie. Mollie would stop and speak with them when she had time.
The quote reads, “Everyone has their own talent. Whether it’s a sport you are good at, or if you are good at dance, or if you’re a great writer, even if you’re just a good person. That’s one of the best things you can be good at.”
Community spreads ‘everyday joy’
Mollie’s family is not alone in honoring her legacy. Different communities have come together to memorialize her life, spreading the kindness and compassion that she showed everyone.
In a conference room on the sixth floor of the Children’s Hospital hangs a five-panel painting, capturing the “everyday joy” Mollie found in life.
The large canvases are filled with flowers, leaves, hearts, and abstract shapes in neon colors. The swirls, stripes, and dots covering the paintings exude a lightness that fills the room.
Children who knew Mollie from the daycare at which she worked, as well as kids from another daycare and Children’s Hospital patients, helped paint the piece. Laura said it looks just like something Mollie would have painted, with abstract shapes and bright colors.
Laura said they had discussions of wanting to brighten up the rooms where children would have meetings — and what better way to do that than with something children made?
Another piece of art hangs in the Grinnell College art gallery that children helped make in honor of Mollie. This one is a handmade hanging piece, and Laura helped sew the pieces together.
Much like the paintings, the piece is made up of brightly colored hearts, flowers, and shapes. Each piece hangs from the other to create an elaborate chandelier, and the longer one looks, the more details jump out. The initials M.T. are painted on one shape.
“Seeing the sincerity and the seriousness on their faces [as the children worked]… that’s been a positive thing,” she said.
For the children who had a relationship with Mollie, making this art was an important step in the healing process, Laura said. Mollie and the events surrounding her death will likely stick with them for the rest of their lives, and being able to work through their feelings with art will help them remember her life, not just her death.
“I just think it’s important for them to do what is essential to help themselves through this,” she said.
In Grinnell’s Ahrens Park, where Mollie used to take the kids she looked after at the summer camp as a staff member, stand statues made of dark metal. The abstract statues, placed earlier this summer, show Mollie putting her arms around children and playing with her dog.
Children can sit at the base of the statues to play, or talk, or just sit and remember, Kim said.
“I really like the theme of everyday joy,” she said.
IMAGES: An outpouring of love for Mollie Tibbetts from the community
Mollie is being remembered through more than just art. Livenow Photography has T-shirts and postcards for Mollie’s Movement, and prints Kindness Cards for people to hand out.
Kim said she tries to give out a few cards a week.
“Our family was on the receiving end of so much kindness during all of it, that we have been trying to pay it forward in as many ways as we can,” she said.
Movements such as Miles for Mollie are still going strong, and the second Mollie Tibbetts memorial run is set for Sept. 29 in Brooklyn. The high school Mollie attended also has four $500 scholarships in her name.
On Mollie’s 21st birthday on May 8, Morgan said many people took it upon themselves to participate in random acts of kindness to honor Mollie.
“It was really made a big deal to… share the kindness on her birthday,” she said.
But smaller than organizations and movements are the teal ribbons still fluttering in Brooklyn, and the mail Laura continues to receive from people offering their condolences and well-wishes to the family.
“[I have] boxes [of mail] from all over the country,” she said. “… They haven’t stopped, and it’s been over a year.”
Letters are stored in boxes, which are scattered around Laura’s living room and office. Cards from Pennsylvania, Georgia, California, and all around the country seemed to overflow from their containers. Each one has been opened and read.
Laura has also received many gifts, including drawings, posters signed by church congregations, and a glass box holding fairy lights and a picture of Mollie — a sign that community members, too, strive to keep Mollie in their hearts.
Dealing with ‘sneaker waves’ of grief
Laura likes to say that she got a five-week headstart on grieving.
She knew something was horribly wrong when her son told her Mollie didn’t show up for work, and that’s when she started to grieve. When they found Mollie’s body, it was a relief in a way, Laura said, because the family at least knew where she was.
As cousins, Morgan and Mollie spent a ton of time together, even living at each others’ houses at different points in their lives, though their relationship changed when Mollie went to the UI. But Morgan said the worst thing she ever heard was the news that authorities had found Mollie’s body.
“That was by far the worst day of my life,” Morgan said. “I remember thinking that I would never be the same.”
Mollie’s death changed Morgan, she said. She’s ultimately grown stronger and affirmed the love she has for her family.
Mollie is always on Kim’s mind, and she’s focused on positive memories of her. Sometimes, when she’s missing Mollie, she’ll talk to her.
“And Mollie liked to talk, so I like to think she’s talking back,” she said.
Laura said she occasionally has moments where she’ll see something and think, “I should show Mollie,” then she has to remind herself that she can’t.
Little things like that are what she describes as “sneaker waves.”
“You start to get through it and you start to be like, ‘I feel better,’ then some little thing will come along, and it’s like a wave that’ll pull you back in,” she said.
She tends to remind herself that someone always has it worse, and if they can get up and face the day, then so can she.
When Mollie went missing, Laura said the FBI assigned the family a victim advocate. The best piece of advice Laura said she received during that time came from the advocate.
The advocate held out her hand and described that as representing the family members’ lives. She pointed at one finger and said that right now, everyone is very focused on Mollie. While pointing to the other fingers, she said you can’t ignore all the other parts of your life. She told Laura that she needs to go to work, feed her family, make sure the boys go to school, and reminded her to take care of herself as well.
So, that’s how Laura thinks about her grief now — as something she needs to balance with the other parts of her life instead of letting it consume her.
“That’s not what I want, and that’s not what Mollie would want at all,” she said.
Living like Mollie
Mollie’s family is moving into the future having grown stronger from the last year of grief and remembrance.
Kim will keep handing out the Kindness Cards to those who need it, she said.
Morgan, who starts student-teaching in December, said she will strive to instill the values Mollie embodied into the children she guides.
“Just in my little part I play in this whole grand scheme of things is just carrying on her legacy by talking about her and sharing the kind of person she was,” she said.
Laura has contemplated the future often lately, she said. With the second memorial run approaching and donations still coming to the memorial fund, things don’t seem to be slowing down.
Now with her sons in college, Laura also has to think about being an empty-nester. She is still working to balance her life, and while she will always miss Mollie, she has things that make her happy.
She said she will continue working with the Children’s Hospital to provide kids with the mental health care they need, because it meant so much to Mollie.
Despite the outpouring of support and efforts to honor Mollie, Laura said she thinks people don’t really know what she means to them yet.
Mollie’s legacy is still changing, and Laura said if there’s one thing Mollie could do right now, she would want to let everyone know how much she appreciates all the love people have shared for her and her family.
“[Mollie] lived life to its fullest,” she said. “… She would want to acknowledge the fact that… she appreciates that outpouring of love.”