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Terry Overlander holds a portrait of his daughter Mackenzie Jo. She died at the age of 18 when she got into a vehicle later involved in a rollover crash. The driver was underage and legally drunk. Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny

Dawson dad tells of daughter's poor choice seven years after her death

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For more than seven years, Terry Overlander has continued to answer every opportunity to stand before high school students and tell a story that never fails to bring him to the brink of sobbing. He's telling it again today, this time to professionals gathered in Redwood Falls at the request of the Southwest Minnesota Toward Zero Deaths campaign to make roadways safer.

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"It's about choices,'' Overlander, of Dawson, tells his audiences of all ages.

He wants to persuade young people not to make the mistake of drinking and driving or of getting into a vehicle when the driver has been drinking. He urges them to consider what their loss might mean to those who love them. Terry and Becky Overlander know exactly what it means. "That terrible feeling,'' said Overlander. "Until you've felt it, you will never know. I'll never forget, never.''

The Dawson couple lost their 18-year-old daughter Mackenzie Jo on Dec. 29, 2003, when she made the choice of getting into a vehicle driven by a 17-year-old male who was legally drunk.

Terry, Becky and daughters Mackenzie and Miranda had been enjoying the evening together at home when Mackenzie's friends called and invited her out, late. Dad argued with her. "She said she was 18 and old enough to make her own decisions,'' said Overlander.

"After that argument I said I love you and she said I love you too, and she went out the door. That was around 11 p.m. Sunday night. Little did I realize those would be the last words we would say to each other.''

The phone rang at 4 a.m.

Overlander was too deep into sleep to catch it in time, but saw the number as he emerged from his slumber and recognized it as coming from the Johnson Memorial Hospital in Dawson. He called the hospital and identified himself to the person asking who was calling. After what seemed a very long pause, he was told the sheriff and minister were on their way.

His heart sank and he started yelling to Becky and Miranda that the two were coming over. "This can't be good. This can't be good.''

The Rev. Kendall Stelter and Dawson police officer Merle Malecek -- a family friend -- were about halfway up the sidewalk. Overlander swung the front door open and pleaded: "Please tell me she's not dead. Please tell me she's not dead.''

"Merle said: 'Terry, I'm afraid I have some awfully bad news.' I just can't explain the way I felt when I heard those words,'' said Overlander.

There had been a vehicle rollover around 1 a.m. near Boyd. "Mackenzie didn't make it,'' the officer told them.

"My wife and daughter screamed no, no it's not true. It's not her,'' said Overlander. "I said oh God no, God no it can't be. There must be some mistake.''

The Jeep had left the road and rolled over six times, pinning Mackenzie in the back seat.

"There was a fire. A very intense fire,'' the officer said.

The driver and two other passengers escaped, but despite the efforts of her friend, Mackenzie could not. Just before losing consciousness, Mackenzie told her friend she could not feel her leg, which apparently was pinned under the front seat, Overlander later learned.

"We all just sat there in shock and disbelief,'' said Overlander of the news delivered during that dark winter's night. "The feeling I had, we had. It's a feeling I just can't describe. I felt sick. I felt empty. I hurt inside like I've never hurt before.''

They later learned that their daughter had consumed no more than a beer -- more likely half that amount -- and should have been the designated driver, as she had on other occasions. Four hours after the accident, the driver and another passenger tested for blood alcohol levels well above the legal limit.

It was the juvenile driver's second alcohol-related offense, said Overlander. He served 60 days of home confinement for criminal vehicular homicide.

Overlander said that both he and his wife have forgiven him.

Life goes on, Overlander said, but the pain does too. Becky has recently been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress attributed to her daughter's death. There is no question either about how profoundly her death still affects her friends.

April 17 would have been Mackenzie's 26th birthday. As they do every year on her birthday, Mackenzie's friends presented flowers to her mom and dad in her memory.

To hear Terry Overlander tell some of his story, go to www.wctrib.com.

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