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'She had the biggest heart': 21-year old dies at dangerous intersection

Krista McCleary1 / 2
Sarah Schlicht, left, holds a picture frame with photos of herself with Krista McCleary, who was killed in a car crash Tuesday south of Moorhead. Schlicht was going to give the frame to McCleary, her best friend since high school, on Tuesday night as a Christmas present. She placed a Psalm in the middle of the frame after hearing the news of McCleary's death. Schlicht is pictured with friends of McCleary, from left, Natasha Maw and Holly Lavecchia, along with McCleary's uncle Roger Beauchene. Carrie Snyd...2 / 2

Those who knew Krista McCleary are grappling with a tangle of heartbreaking ironies.

A year ago, she became by far the youngest member of her Fargo church to sign up for intensive training so she could offer one-on-one comfort to those beset by loss.

She was a cautious driver who put off getting her license until she was out of her teens and felt confident enough behind the wheel.

On Tuesday, she was headed to her last final exam of the semester at Minnesota State University Moorhead, thrilled about the time with her close-knit family awaiting her.

But on her way to that exam, McCleary, a 21-year-old health services administration major, was killed in a violent traffic accident with a semi south of Moorhead.

In the aftermath, her friends and family are remembering her as the person they'd want by their side in a crisis: a resident picker-upper, a composer of soothing piano melodies left on cell phone voice mails and a candy-bar-dispensing confidante.

"She had the biggest heart in the world," said best friend Sarah Schlicht. "She would put anyone ahead of herself, which was something we gave her a hard time about."

McCleary graduated from Fargo South High School in 2006. She was a hard-working student who stayed active in French club and choir, said counselor Kay VanDenBerg.

She went on to MSUM, but college life didn't detract from her close relationship with her family, said their pastor, Rich Zeck of First United Methodist Church. He recently teased her that he and her fourth-grade sister, Margaret, were going to show up at a college party she planned to attend. McCleary said she wouldn't mind that one bit.

On her Facebook page, she listed the three most important things in life: "an awesome Savior, a loving family, and loyal and caring friends."

McCleary's other sister, Katie, is a Fargo South sophomore. Her mom, Cynthia, is a West Fargo language teacher, and her stepfather, Michael, who raised her since she was 5, works for the National Guard.

McCleary's father, Kevin, died of cancer when she was 3, and it was that early encounter with loss that attracted her to the church listening ministry, friends said. Last January, she signed up for the 50-hour-training, which she'd juggle with school and a part-time job at Hornbacher's.

"It was five middle-aged guys like me and Krista, and she held her own," said participant Jim Coyne. "She had unusual poise for a woman her age."

But friends say McCleary, a junior who wanted to run a nursing home, had been in the business of making folks feel better for some time. She'd show up at friends' houses minutes after a distressed phone call.

As an assistant manager at Fargo's 32nd Avenue South Hornbacher's, she'd buy her employees their favorite candy bars and commiserate after a rough day.

"A smile from Krista would turn your day from bad to happy," said friend Sara Schilling.

The smile didn't seem to leave McCleary's face for long. She loved swing-dancing at the Avalon, the Minnesota Twins, the F-M RedHawks - and TV host and comedian Craig Ferguson. She and Schlicht once drove to Des Moines, Iowa, to catch Ferguson's standup routine. They spent three dreary and rainy days in a cheap hotel - and had a grand time.

Friends said McCleary was a careful driver who always wore a seat belt. Her phone was in her purse at the time of the crash, said Cass County Sheriff Bill Bergquist.

The Minnesota State Patrol said the eastbound McCleary failed to yield to a southbound tanker truck at U.S. Highway 75 and Clay County Road 12.

Uncle Roger Beauchene said McCleary's family is having a hard time accepting the news.

"This doesn't seem possible yet," he said. "I hate this phrase, but it's the truth: The good die young."