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Family of fallen officer creates special tree to thank community

By Irinna Danielson

For the Deseret News

Published: Thursday, Dec. 5 2013 1:21 p.m. MST

Laura Johnson, Draper Police Sgt. Derek Johnson's mother, along with with some of her friends and family decided to honor him and also give back to the community by creating the "When I Grow Up" tree at this year's Festival of Trees at the South Towne Expo Center in Sandy.

Alan Neves, Deseret News

SANDY — It's been three months since Draper Police Sgt. Derek Johnson was shot and killed in the line of duty.

Johnson’s mother, Laura Johnson, along with some of her friends and family decided to honor him and also give back to the community with a special entry at the 2013 Festival of Trees.

From a young age, Laura Johnson said her son knew exactly what he wanted.

"When Derek was in fifth grade he wrote an autobiography and he titled it, ‘When I grow up I want to be a police officer,'" she said.

Like any mother would, she expressed concern. "He told me, ‘Mom, you don't need to worry. I'll be safe,'" she recalled.

Then on Sept. 1, Derek Johnson was shot and killed in the line of duty. "Our community has been such a great support through the tragedy of Derek's death," his mother said.

That's why she and her lifelong friends Gaylene Johnson and DaNell Glade decided to honor him by giving back to the community that he loved protecting. They created a Christmas tree in Derek's honor, titled “When I Grow Up,” which they've entered into the 2013 Festival of Trees. They decked out the tree in all things Derek, a tribute to his love for police work. They said it’s an honor to be able to recognize the husband and father who died living his dream.

The friends and family members been busy decorating police handcuffs, wrapping ornaments with the ribbons they wore to his funeral, and hand-wiring miniature police cars that light up just like the real ones.

"We want everyone to know how great (Derek) was and what a great person he was for his community," his mother said.

As festival-goers look closely at the tree, they'll also see coins on the ornaments. They're "challenge coins," sent to the Johnson family from police, fire and military personnel from all over the world.

"Each department has their own coin, so it's a symbolism of brotherhood," Laura Johnson said.

The challenge coins on the tree are like the ones that 7-year-old Bensen Johnson received from the officers who paid respects at his father's funeral.

Bensen’s favorite coin is the one with his father’s picture on it.

"I think whoever is the recipient of the tree and the coins is going to immediately be a member of the police family," said Shante Johnson, Derek's widow. "I hope they take a lot of pride in it."

The decorations on the tree aren't the only thing that will catch people's attention. Underneath the tree sits a dream Power Wheels cruiser that any boy would love, plus hundreds of Lego bricks in honor of Bensen.

“'Cause I love Legos,” Bensen said.

Shante Johnson said playing with Legos was something her husband and son loved to do together. In fact, Bensen said he wants to be a Lego designer when he grows up. He helped decorate the “When I Grow Up” tree.

The annual festival displays and auctions off hundreds of Christmas trees. All the proceeds go to patients in need at Primary Children's Hospital.

The "When I Grow Up" tree was purchased Wednesday by an anonymous buyer, who then gifted it right back to the Johnson family.

Hundreds of trees will be on display at the South Towne Expo Center through Dec. 7, from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. For more information, visit www.festivaloftrees.utah.org.

“Derek would be proud of this,” Laura Johnson said. “He’s just smiling down. I know he’s proud of all of this.”

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