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Remarkable Rutherford Woman: Working mother doesn't accept 'can't'

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Raising seven kids only 10 years apart, working for the state legislature, taking the Sam Davis Home in new directions - there isn't much that Murfreesboro's Tiffany Johnson "can't" do. JOHN BUTWELL

Children are important to Tiffany Johnson. That's why she has seven of them - Zoey, 19, Kayla, 18, Elijah, 16, Ireland, 15, Emerson, 13, Oliver, 11 and Preston, 9.

And her commitment to children means she takes time to create special programs and areas for them at the Sam Davis Home, where she's the executive director.

She's added a special quiet room where children can see interesting displays, play historical games and color pictures while parents view some of the other attractions at the antebellum Smyrna plantation.

Johnson owes her success thus far to a high school guidance counselor who told her she was bound to fail, she says. "She told me I'd always be on welfare and be a drain on society. But I don't take 'can't' very well. I have to prove them wrong."

Meets fellow Christian

Although her oldest daughter was born while she was a junior in high school, Johnson graduated with her class, started junior college and went to work in a real estate office. That was in southern California, where she was raised.

She was in a relationship with a man who abused her, but finally she kicked him out and continued taking care of her three children on her own. She was studying for her real estate license when a young real estate agent, Travis Johnson, who worked in the same office offered to help her study.

At first, she said no, but finally agreed to accept his help. They became friends, but still she was worried, so she prayed about it. She says she was getting pretty excited about him, but she still wanted to be able to raise her children right - and she wanted to be able to attend church, since that's very important to her.

'Give me a sign'

"I told God if he's not the right one for me, take him out of my life. But if he is, give me some kind of a sign," Johnson says. Later that day, she received an email from Travis.

He said they had talked about how they felt about a lot of things, but now he wanted to talk about spiritual things and asked her to go to church with him the next Sunday. "I still have that email," she says with a smile.

Now the whole family attends World Outreach Church and it's still an important part of her life.

Johnson married Travis a few months after they first went to church together - and a few years later, they came to a decision to move from California to Tennessee.

That was in 2006. Travis had lost both of his grandparents and his father over about three years, Johnson explains. "We felt it was time for a change."

Finds a home in the 'Boro

A friend who lives here helped them find a house in Murfreesboro, Johnson says. First, Johnson saw the house online and really liked it - but it was way too expensive. But she emailed a picture of it to Travis, and he loved it, too. He even put the picture on his screensaver.

Then several months later, Johnson's friend called to say she had found a house that was perfect, but it was $100 above the couple's top price. The friend wanted them to see it anyway. It was the same house that had been featured online, and they bought it.

"We had 20 days to pack, move and close on the house," Johnson recalls. "But we made it and we still live there."

She continued going to school, graduating cum laude from MTSU and starting work on a master's degree in public administration at Tennessee State. While she was there, Johnson worked as a legislative assistant.

Holds job at the Capitol

It started with an internship with State Rep. Charles Sargent of Franklin - but she did so well that she was offered a full-time position with State Rep. Tim Wirgau of Paris. She stayed for five years.

Then she took a class about managing non-profits, and "I fell in love with non-profits," she says.

She did a strategic plan for the Sam Davis Home as a class project - and when she presented it to the board of directors at the home, they told her the director's position was open and asked her to apply.

One of the board members kept asking her why she didn't apply and she kept saying she didn't want the job - but finally she agreed to apply.

Takes a different approach

Then when the board called her for an interview, she didn't say all the things you're supposed to say if you want the job. Instead, she told them what she would and wouldn't do if they hired her.

"I told them I wasn't going to sit in an office and answer telephones all day," she describes with a laugh. "If that was what they wanted, they should hire someone else." Instead, she gets out in the community to promote the historic home.

Plus, "I told them I would only stay for three to five years and then I would move on," Johnson adds. "They hired me anyway."

That was in May 2016. She's been revamping the home as fast as she can ever since then, starting by reorganizing the office area.

"There was a place for everything, but nothing had been put back after it was used," she recalls. "So, I couldn't find anything. I need organization."

Saves $400 a month

Another way Johnson has reorganized things at the Sam Davis Home is to revisit its contracts for services. On just one of those contracts, the one for trash hauling, she saved the program about $400 a month by re-bidding it.

She also found a donation to replace the antiquated computer system in use at the home. Before, she says everyone had a home-style computer, and employees had to change desks to perform certain tasks that could only be done on a particular computer.

Now, they have a main server that can be accessed from all the computers. "It saves a lot of confusion," Johnson says. "We are much more efficient. The board thought we had a manpower problem. But I told them we had an organization problem."

Now she's lobbying for a new barn. "We only have inside space for about 25 to 30 people in a group, but the barn could protect up to 250 people from the weather," Johnson explains. That would mean larger school groups and the possibility of hosting weddings or other social events at the home, even in bad weather.

Of course, rainy days aren't the only problem that's ever happened at the Sam Davis Home. In fact, shortly after Johnson started her job, a Blue Angels fighter jet crashed on the property.

It harmed no people or buildings on the ground, but contaminated a long strip of soil with jet fuel that the Navy had to come in and dig up, Johnson explains.

This spring, if the Navy agrees, the home will host a memorial event for the pilot, Marine Capt. Jeff Kuss, on the one-year anniversary of his death, Johnson adds.

'Family comes first'

Most recently, Rutherford Deputy Mayor Jeff Davidson called to see if the home could host a group from Leadership Rutherford - and of course Johnson agreed. "I want them all to see the home," she says.

But her own home and family are her true top priority, Johnson says. Her oldest two daughters are on their own now, but they come home on Sundays for a family dinner. Johnson says raising her family has been rewarding, and she especially enjoys traveling with them.

"We take road trips," she says. "We've been to Yellowstone, Mount Rushmore and Washington, DC. We drive until we see somewhere we want to stop."

This winter, the family went to New York City. "I had always wanted to ice skate outdoors, so we went skating at Rockefeller Center."

Invites everyone to visit

Still, the Sam Davis Home has also become very important to this remarkable Rutherford woman, so she wants to invite everyone to come and visit her at the historic home in Smyrna on the banks of Stewarts Creek.

It's open six days a week Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. - 4 p.m. The cost is $12 for adults, $10 for veterans, military and seniors - and only $6 for college students and children 6-12 years old. Children under 6 are free.

Johnson's other big project for the home is to focus on its slave cabins, which provide fascinating insights into antebellum life, she says. African Americans she has discussed it with say they don't believe their history should be buried - so currently, she's urging a local Boy Scout to create a slaves' garden beside the cabin for his Eagle project.

A rebel against 'can't'

Johnson points out once again that she's a rebel against "can't" - so what she admires about the young Rebel soldier whose parents built the Sam Davis Home is his "loyalty."

Sam Davis refused to inform on his fellow Coleman's Scouts, and Federal troops hanged him for espionage on his 21st birthday. There are a lot of differences between Johnson and the "Boy Hero of the Confederacy," but they have one thing in common - they don't give up.


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