Heroine of the hour credits faith

Antionette Tuff learned grace under trials of her own life.

Staff writers Marcus Garner and Ty Tagami contributed to this report.

The day before that fateful encounter, Antoinette Marie Tuff was deep into a Bible study series about making God the immovable anchor in her life.

In times of storms, in the midst of hardship and pain, she was being asked to seek her God for the stability, guidance and security she needed.

At 47, Tuff had arguably already seen her share of hardship: the trials of caring for a disabled child, a business failure leading to bankruptcy, and finally, just last year, the dissolution of her 27-year marriage.

Then without warning Tuesday Tuff found herself in the middle of another faith test. Would the deeply religious woman be able to stand? If she made it through, would she have a testimony?

Faced to face with the 20-year-old “baby” she would soon learn was Michael Hill, Tuff dug in deep, praying to the one who’d seen her through financial struggles, an ill son and a failed marriage.

“God, what do I do?” she prayed to herself, recounting her ordeal to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last week. “What do I say?”

Michael Hill had stormed the Ronald McNair Discovery Learning Academy armed with an AK-47 assault rifle and pockets full of ammunition. He’d stopped taking his medicines for bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

He wanted to die, he told Tuff. No one loved him.

Tuff could relate. She had felt the same way just a year ago.

“I love you, baby,” she told him.

New fame

Since the dramatic moments last Tuesday, when she and hundreds of children, teachers and adults could have been killed or wounded, Tuff is also coping with a new phenomenon: fame.

President Obama called her Thursday to praise her heroism and thank her for helping avert a national tragedy. Tuff took the call while in New York prepping for an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper. Major news outlets around the country replayed the dramatic 911 call Tuff placed to DeKalb County.

In between, the McNair bookkeeper also launched an Internet charity drive to raise money for providing travel opportunities to poor children. Within 18 hours of her CNN interview, the effort had already raised more than $67,000.

In all of her media appearances, one question comes up over and over again: how? How did she remain so cool while an obviously disturbed young man held — then fired — a deadly assault weapon so close to her?

Tuff credits her faith. Others point to the trials of her own life, which taught her to be resourceful and empathetic toward those in distress.

Tuff was a skinny 13-year-old from Washington, D.C., when she met her future husband, Derrick. Friends at first, they married in 1986 when Antoinette was 20.

“It was the best day of my life,” Tuff said of her wedding day. “I loved him unconditionally. That was my sweet heart.”

Over time, Tuff earned the respect of her new family, according to the Rev. Ulysses Tuff, her ex-husband’s uncle, and pastor of her church.

“She never gave an excuse. She was very adaptable,” he said. “Whatever situation she found herself in, even if it bothered her she wouldn’t complain. She was a survivor. If she didn’t know something, she’d find out. If she couldn’t do something, she’d teach herself how to do it. She was very resourceful.”

Tuff would have to tap into those resources often after giving birth in 1991 to her second child, Derrick Tuff II, who was born physically disabled and would over time become worse. Daughter LaVita was born five years earlier.

In 1995, the couple moved to Macon to be closer to Derrick’s family. Two years later they relocated to Atlanta before finally settling in Decatur closer to the Rev. Tuff’s church.

As they settled into their new life, Antoinette got busy, serving with the church’s 70-member prayer team, pastoral care and evangelism ministries. More than anything she was a committed Bible student concerned not just with the words on the page but how to apply them to her life.

Tuff and her husband ran into financial trouble during the recession. Derrick Tuff’s transportation business began to fail, and the couple filed for bankruptcy in 2009, thousands of dollars in debt.

“Even though she had her own issues and problems, she always took time for other people,” Rev. Tuff said.

Tuff and her husband fulfilled a court-ordered repayment plan to settle their debts and were released from bankruptcy court this summer. But their marriage did not survive the strain of the preceding years.

For Antoinette Tuff, the nadir had come New Year’s Eve 2012. She was so distraught, she considered taking her own life.

“She was very despondent, very, very despondent,” the Rev. Tuff recalled. “She just cried and cried. She stopped eating. She was literally slipping away, giving up.”

Just as she had done for them, however, church members and family rallied. They prayed and encouraged her. They helped her push past the pain, to regain her footing and reclaim her hope.

Yet the loss still lingers.

“I had a perfect marriage,” Antoinette Tuff said. “I didn’t see it coming.”

Right place, right time

When Tuff came on staff at McNair, a small charter school near Decatur, principal Brian Bolden quickly learned that she was good interacting with parents.

“She’s firm, she’s stern, she’s very friendly and supportive,” Bolden said. “And this is the big one, she’s very spiritual.”

“She’s a very straightforward person,” observed Kirial Stargell, who has three children at McNair. “She’s a nice person. And she’s very outspoken. She’s going to tell you the truth whether you like it or not.”

Bolden typically gives Tuff an early lunch break so she’d be in her seat when parents arrive in the early afternoon for their kids.

Tuff wasn’t supposed to be at in that seat that afternoon, though. A new employee was.

“Had I arrived when I should have, the new hire would’ve been there,” Tuff said.

Bolden was at an off-campus meeting when he got a frantic call that a gunman had entered the school. He immediately called his front office, and Tuff picked up when she saw his number flash.

“I said, ‘Ms. Tuff, is everything OK right now?’ And she said, ‘No it’s not, but everything is good.’”

The conversation lasted maybe 12 seconds. Tuff ended it by saying, “Thank you for calling, have a wonderful day.”

Bolden knew then that she was in control of the situation.

Inwardly, Tuff said she was terrified. But she said she believes God chose her to put her own problems aside and help Hill.

“I knew how he felt. I had been in that situation,” she said. “I knew that could’ve been my story but because of God’s grace and mercy it wasn’t.”

From that moment on, Tuff said she knew Hill didn’t just need her. He needed what had kept her in her tough times: hope.

“God brought me back from hopelessness to hope,” she said. “If he did it for me he could do it for that young man.”

And so right there, Tuff shared bits of her story. She told Hill she once considered suicide, too, but she’d just started her own business, All Star Charter Tours in Decatur.

“Look at me now,” she told him. She encouraged him to stay in the room with her. She told him she loved him.

Something in her voice made Hill believe her. He finally put his weapon down and his hands behind his back.

While the world marveled at what she had done, the Rev. Tuff said none of it surprised him.

“Knowing her history, the things she’s gone through personally as a wife, mother and sister, she was primed for that moment,” Tuff said. “Even the way she talked to him — baby this, baby that — was normal.”

The bottom line, he said, “When you have been broken, it’s easy to identify with someone who has been broken.”

Whatever the source of her strength, parent Kirial Stargell is just thankful Tuff was the person Hill met last Tuesday.

“The only thing I can do is just thank God that she was there,” said Stargell. “I just want to thank her for being in the right place Tuesday.”