“It’s a great day to be alive.”
Those are the words Mollie Tibbetts wrote beneath her name on her Instagram profile, an apt summary for a photo collection showing a vivacious 20-year-old college student – beaming in every shot – who composed her own poetry, acted in school musicals and made anyone she met feel important.
Tibbetts was killed in July 2018, but on Wednesday – what would have been her 21st birthday – her hometown of Brooklyn, Iowa, celebrated her life and legacy.
A local nonprofit group is asking for donations to reopen the shuttered doors of the town’s 108-year-old opera house to honor Tibbetts. So far, more than $1.1 million has been raised to restore the dilapidated landmark, where theater and music once thrived in this Midwestern town of 1,500 or so residents -- the Norman Rockwell-esque boyhood home of movie icon John Wayne.
“This symbolizes a new life for our town,” said Brian Manatt, of the Brooklyn Community Development, the nonprofit group spearheading the restoration.
“We don’t want Brooklyn, Iowa, to be remembered for tragedy,” said Manatt, who knew Tibbetts. “Mollie was so involved in the arts and culture and we want all to remember her in a positive way.”
The new opera house – set to be unveiled in December – will also feature a memorial of statues capturing Tibbetts and her importance to so many in this central Iowa community. The two whimsical, bronze-coated metal renderings are abstract depictions of Tibbetts, one showing her running with the family dog, Buster, and another of the aspiring child psychologist surrounded by children.
“She loved helping others, and it was infectious to children,” said Chad Nath, Tibbetts’ former boss at a summer day camp.
“They were so drawn to her goofy spirit and the way she treated them – like they were equals,” he said. “She was a light you couldn’t steer away from.”
Tibbetts disappeared on July 18 during an evening jog through the streets of Brooklyn, a community where few residents thought to lock their doors. In the days that followed, her photo turned up most everywhere – on T-shirts and buttons; on stickers on trucks traveling the I-80 corridor; on flyers, in shop windows, and at stands at the Iowa State Fair.
Tibbetts was far more than a face on a poster, as the country would learn.
The stories that trickled out told the story of an extraordinary young woman, dynamic, selfless, kind.
A college kid growing up in small-town America, she devoured Harry Potter books, loved playing board games with her two brothers and was inclined to belt out Taylor Swift songs, even when friends teased her about her singing.
Her driving skills, her father joked, were terrible.
Her first date with Dalton Jack, her longtime boyfriend, was for ice cream at the Dairy Barn. And she was looking forward to attending a wedding with him in the Dominican Republic in August – a trip that would have been her first time out of the country.
To her high school speech coach, Jarrod Diehm, Tibbetts is best remembered for her oratorical skills and her compassion for other students. Diehm said Tibbetts took time to help and encourage classmates struggling with public speaking and mental health issues at Brooklyn, Guernsey, and Malcom High.
Diehm recalled a time in which a classmate of Tibbetts was grappling with depression. A week before she disappeared, Tibbetts reached out to the teen on Facebook, he said. “Mollie wanted to make sure the girl knew that somebody cared,” he said. “That’s the personality Mollie was. She was always reaching out to people to make sure they were OK … letting them know that they were not alone.”
Joy VanLandschoot did not know Tibbetts at the time she vanished. But the Brooklyn mother of five – much like everyone else in the town – did her part to help publicize the case. VanLandschoot’s small print shop, across the street from the abandoned opera house, turned into a factory where T-shirts and buttons were produced nonstop -- complete with Tibbetts’ photo and the missing persons hotline.
Now, VanLandschoot is one of the forces behind “Mollie’s Movement,” an online group dedicated to honoring Tibbetts' legacy through activities and service to others – organized largely on Facebook, where it has some 70,000 followers.
“I fell in love with who she was as a person,” VanLandschoot said. “Even though I didn’t know Mollie personally, I felt this tremendous loss.”
Mollie’s Movement is soliciting donations of $21 for the rebuilding of the opera house in honor of Tibbetts' 21st birthday. It is also promoting its “Paying Kindness Forward” program, encouraging people across the nation to showcase 21 random acts of kindness in Tibbetts’ memory.
“If you don’t have money, that’s OK,” said VanLandschoot. “It costs nothing to show kindness in the way that Mollie did.”
As members of the community gather on Tibbetts’ birthday to celebrate her life, her family is trying to focus on the same spirit of celebration.
“This is exactly what we wanted,” said her older brother, Jake. “It’s obviously a harder thing to think about who she was rather than what happened because everywhere you look, it’s right there. It’s great that people are grasping onto the ‘who’ and not the ‘what.’”
Tibbetts’ younger brother, Scott, echoed the sentiment. “I’m not here to mourn anything or be upset,” he said. “I’m here to celebrate and be the person I usually am and if not, a better person.”
The celebration and feelings of revival in Iowa on Wednesday are perhaps best understood through a quote Tibbetts left behind on a chalkboard in her bedroom, where she read voraciously, jotting down passages from books and memorialized lines from poems that resonated with her.
The words, from Albus Dumbledore – a wizard who was Harry Potter’s friend and mentor in the J.K. Rowling novels: “Happiness can be found in the darkest of times – if only we remember to turn on the light.”