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Profiles of Hope: Mother's selfless spirit lives on in daughter

Being a mother was the joy of Rebecca Needham Anderson's life. "She ... would do anything for us," said her daughter Hilary Johnson, seen here with her mom in 1981. [PROVIDED]
Being a mother was the joy of Rebecca Needham Anderson's life. "She ... would do anything for us," said her daughter Hilary Johnson, seen here with her mom in 1981. [PROVIDED]

Hilary Johnson carries her mother’s memory everywhere every day.

She has a tattoo on her back extending from her shoulder blades to her waist. There is an angel and a rose, but there is also The Survivor Tree and one of the chairs from The Field of Empty Chairs.

Her mother died at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.

But Rebecca Needham Anderson didn’t die in the bombing.

She was a nurse at home in Midwest City the morning the blast shook the ground for miles around downtown Oklahoma City. She felt it — everyone did — and when she started seeing images on TV of children, babies even, being carried out of the building, she knew where she needed to be.

She went to the Murrah Building.

She never came home.

“I didn’t just lose my mother that day,” Hilary said. “I lost everything.”

As we approach the 25th anniversary of the bombing at the Murrah Building, we are reminded how much has changed over the years. The site is now peaceful and beautiful, the downtown vibrant, the city energetic. But the biggest change since that April morning has been in the people.

No one felt the shock waves any more than Hilary Johnson.

When she says she lost everything that day, she isn’t speaking metaphorically of her mother. That day set off a chain reaction of events that completely upended everything about the teenager’s life.

That tattoo on her back has one other element — the 9:01 gate. It stands guard at the west end of the memorial, a reminder of who we were before the bomb went off.

“And I chose that,” Hilary said, “to remind me how quickly your life can change — in a minute — and how it may never be the same.”

***

Hilary Johnson moved to Oklahoma City when she was a toddler.

Her mom grew up in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and stayed there after marrying and having two kids. But after that marriage ended, Rebecca decided to move to Oklahoma City because of some church friends she knew there.

There would be another marriage, two more kids, then another divorce.

Hilary knows there were tough times for her mom, but she only remembers good ones.

“What she wanted to be was a mother,” Hilary said. “She was very compassionate and loving and would do anything for us.”

Birthdays and holidays were Rebecca’s favorite times. At Christmas, she loved to decorate the house and get as many gifts as she could for her kids, and when it came time for birthdays, she would start buying presents months in advance.

Hilary remembers how fun her mom was, too.

Once during an assembly at Hilary’s school, there was a musical group playing. A friend nudged Hilary as she listened.

“Oh, my gosh, Hilary,” the friend said, “look at your mom.”

Hilary glanced over, and her mom was dancing. All the other mothers were just sitting there.

Hilary was mortified at the time — she suspects her mom loved doing things that would embarrass or tease the kids a bit — but now, Hilary looks back on that moment and so many others differently.

“Something I didn’t realize till I was much older … ,” Hilary said, “she was the cool mom.”

Rebecca even decided to go back to school to become a nurse. All four of her children were in school when she started taking classes, but still, she had to read and study and prepare with four kids in the house.

“She locked her bedroom door,” Hilary said with a laugh. “And when that bedroom door was locked, we knew — ‘Let Mama study.’”

Rebecca raised her children to help themselves and help each other. So, when she needed to study, she expected Hilary and her older brother, Gabriel, to help with younger sister, Rachael, and younger brother, Britton.

Rebecca became a licensed practical nurse, but during those days, she also taught her kids a few lessons, too.

“Preparing us for life,” Hilary said. “How to take care of ourselves. How to go into the world and be without her.”

No one expected that day to come so soon.

***

Hilary Johnson didn’t always see her mom in the morning before heading off to school.

By the time Hilary was in ninth grade at Monroney Middle School in Midwest City, her mom was working at a nursing home. Everyone in the house let Rebecca sleep in when she didn't have to go to work.

On April 19, 1995, Rebecca was off work. It was a let-mom-sleep morning.

But for some reason, Hilary decided to peek into her mom’s room

“I love you,” Hilary said softly.

“I love you, too,” came the reply. “I’ll pick you up from school if it’s raining.”

A couple hours later, Hilary was in the hallway at Monroney returning to class from the restroom when she felt something. The ground seemed to move. The building seemed to shake.

She didn’t think much of it; Tinker Air Force Base was only a few miles away.

“Did you feel that?” someone asked when she got back to class.

Soon enough, everyone at Monroney found out something terrible had happened in downtown Oklahoma City. Something had happened at the federal building. An accident? An explosion? A bomb? No one knew right away, but Hilary talked with friends about it at lunch, between classes, even during class.

Still, she wasn’t all that worried. She didn’t know anybody who worked downtown, didn’t know anyone who would’ve been anywhere close to the Murrah Building.

That afternoon when school let out, it was raining as the forecast had predicted. Hilary waited for her mom; she said she’d be there if it was raining.

Rebecca never came.

Hilary was about to catch a ride with a friend’s mom when her older brother, Gabriel, appeared.

“We gotta go,” he said. “Mom’s in the hospital.”

“What?” Hilary said. “Why?”

“Just come on.”

What they didn’t know was that their mom had been watching news coverage that morning of what was happening at the Murrah Building. When she saw a child being carried out of the rubble, when she heard that help was needed, she threw on a pair of jeans and a white sweatshirt and told her husband — Rebecca had been married to Fred Anderson less than a year — to take her to downtown Oklahoma City.

Not long after she arrived, Rebecca was in the rubble, doing what she could to help, when something fell and hit her on the back of the head.

Rebecca Needham Anderson died four days later.

It blew everything in Hilary’s life apart.

***

Hilary Johnson doesn’t remember who decided she was going to live with her grandparents.

Those days after her mom died were such a blur, but eventually, arrangements for the kids had to be made because they hardly knew their stepdad, Fred Anderson. Staying with him didn’t seem like an option.

Rachael and Britton would live with their dad in Oklahoma City. But what about Gabriel and Hilary? He wanted to live with their father back in Fort Smith, but Hilary chose her grandparents, Doris and Bobby Needham.

A few years earlier, Bobby had bypass surgery and flatlined for four minutes. After that, Rebecca made a point of visiting her parents at least once a month. She’d pile all the kids in the car and make the drive from Oklahoma City to Fort Smith. She didn’t want to miss time with her dad.

But during all those trips, Hilary got to really know her grandparents.

“And I never wanted to leave,” Hilary said.

Living with her grandparents was the best option after her mom died, but it still meant Hilary was moving to a new city. She would start high school in a new place. She had left behind her siblings and her friends.

Everything.

Her mom had lost her life in the aftermath of the bombing, but Hilary had lost her way of life, too.

All of it made her angry.

Those feelings boiled inside her for years. They affected her personality, her attitude, her outlook. They changed who she was, and what was worse, she felt there was no way to get rid of that anger.

“In my mind, I couldn’t be mad at God because God didn’t create this. He didn’t make this happen,” she said. “And I know this sounds crazy, but I was never mad at Timothy McVeigh. I never hated him.

“And then, I couldn’t be mad at my mother for being who she was.”

Still, Hilary was angry.

“I knew that I couldn’t stay on the path that I was on,” she said. “I didn’t want to feel like that anymore.”

She eventually decided she needed help. For nearly a decade, she thought she could handle her emotions on her own, but after she started seeing a counselor, she realized how much she had bottled up.

She began to unpack the hurt.

That doesn’t mean everything is fine. Even after 25 years, Hilary still has trouble sleeping when winter starts turning to spring. She suspects it’s because her subconscious knows April 19 is approaching.

But she is able to talk and laugh about her mom, to remember without sorrow.

“The whole ‘time heals all wounds,’” Hilary said, “I don’t believe that it heals them.

“It just makes life easier.”

***

Hilary Johnson has no way of knowing how her life would be different had her mother not died.

But Hilary knows that day changed who she became.

The lessons her mom was always teaching her children — helping each other and serving one another — weren’t just talked about. Rebecca Needham Anderson demonstrated them all the time, but when she went to the Murrah Building instead of staying home, she followed her principles even as they put her in harm’s way.

She lived them in her life and in her death.

Her daughter tries to walk in those footsteps.

Hilary believes she is more mindful of others. She tries to be kind and considerate even when someone else’s actions are neither kind nor considerate of her. She does that not just because of how her mom lived but because of how she died.

“You just never know what someone might be going through,” Hilary said. “Even a simple smile … could change someone else’s day.”

That’s why she got that tattoo on her back, a memorial to her mom and to the change that came to her life on April 19, 1995. But the truth is, Hilary Johnson doesn’t carry that with her because of what she has on her back.

She carries it in her heart.

Related Photos
<strong>Even though she had four school-aged children, Rebecca Needham Anderson went back to school and became a licensed practical nurse. On the day of the bombing at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, she went to the site to offer aid. [PROVIDED]</strong>

Even though she had four school-aged children, Rebecca Needham Anderson went back to school and became a licensed practical nurse. On the day of the bombing at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, she went to the site to offer aid. [PROVIDED]

<figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-0d8d8ef43a9ba489bfdf89ca9f58555e.jpg" alt="Photo - Even though she had four school-aged children, Rebecca Needham Anderson went back to school and became a licensed practical nurse. On the day of the bombing at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, she went to the site to offer aid. [PROVIDED] " title=" Even though she had four school-aged children, Rebecca Needham Anderson went back to school and became a licensed practical nurse. On the day of the bombing at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, she went to the site to offer aid. [PROVIDED] "><figcaption> Even though she had four school-aged children, Rebecca Needham Anderson went back to school and became a licensed practical nurse. On the day of the bombing at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, she went to the site to offer aid. [PROVIDED] </figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-4afc93bf893b2187e033e3871ef494aa.jpg" alt="Photo - Rebecca Needham Anderson didn't just tell her four children to serve and help others -- she modeled it every day of her life, including the day she died. The nurse was fatally injured during rescue efforts after the bombing at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. [PROVIDED] " title=" Rebecca Needham Anderson didn't just tell her four children to serve and help others -- she modeled it every day of her life, including the day she died. The nurse was fatally injured during rescue efforts after the bombing at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. [PROVIDED] "><figcaption> Rebecca Needham Anderson didn't just tell her four children to serve and help others -- she modeled it every day of her life, including the day she died. The nurse was fatally injured during rescue efforts after the bombing at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. [PROVIDED] </figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-0769f4a4467b61f251a360284f0de927.jpg" alt="Photo - Being a mother was the joy of Rebecca Needham Anderson's life. "She ... would do anything for us," said her daughter Hilary Johnson, seen here with her mom in 1981. [PROVIDED] " title=" Being a mother was the joy of Rebecca Needham Anderson's life. "She ... would do anything for us," said her daughter Hilary Johnson, seen here with her mom in 1981. [PROVIDED] "><figcaption> Being a mother was the joy of Rebecca Needham Anderson's life. "She ... would do anything for us," said her daughter Hilary Johnson, seen here with her mom in 1981. [PROVIDED] </figcaption></figure>
Jenni Carlson

Jenni Carlson, a sports columnist at The Oklahoman since 1999, came by her love of sports honestly. She grew up in a sports-loving family in Kansas. Her dad coached baseball and did color commentary on the radio for the high school football... Read more ›

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