CHICAGO -- It has been a year since Darlyne Klages was finishing up her day as a dental hygienist and a co-worker heard something about an accident at SeaWorld in Orlando, Fla.
"I called my sister's cell and there wasn't any answer, so I left a message: Please tell me this isn't you," the Flossmoor, Ill., resident recalled.
But, deep down, Klages knew. Dawn Brancheau, 40, a trainer for 15 years, had just concluded a show with Tilikum, a 23-foot, 6-ton orca whale, when she was grabbed by the animal, pulled into the water and killed before a stunned crowd.
When the horrific details were confirmed, the world just stopped for Klages, 47. She remembers turning to a colleague and asking plaintively, "What am I supposed to do?"
The anniversary is Thursday, a day freighted with emotion. And while the story made headlines worldwide, the family has not spoken much publicly about the attack -- and Klages not at all until she agreed to sit down with the Chicago Tribune this month. She wants people to know how her sister lived life to the fullest.
Rather than initiate a costly and lengthy court fight, the family settled on what they considered a more fitting tribute: They started the Dawn Brancheau Foundation, which officially launched with a website in December, to carry on the University of South Carolina graduate's legacy of helping others.
Brancheau's parents, Charles and Marion LoVerde, grew up in Chicago, but raised their six children in Cedar Lake, Ind., about 45 miles away.
After a family vacation to the famed sea park, the then-9-year-old Dawn announced that she had found her dream job and would reach SeaWorld by age 30.
She beat her goal by a full five years.
"It was funny ... because we didn't have any pets, but she was always rescuing bunnies, ducks, dogs," Klages said. "Dawn said the day she was hired was the happiest day of her life."
Like any career path, Brancheau started small, with sea lions and otters, before moving up to the big time at Shamu Stadium. In 1996, she found personal as well as professional bliss, marrying Scott Brancheau, a skier at the park.
Their home was always open to snowbirds looking for a respite from Chicago winters. Every spring break, Klages and her daughter would travel to Orlando -- where the trainer's beaming smile often would greet them from billboards. Brancheau would lavish attention on her visitors, including taking them backstage and introducing them to the stars -- both human and marine.
"She radiated love, joy, concern -- for herself, for others, for animals and for the planet," Klages said of her sister. "She made strangers feel like best friends."
That was evident by the long line of mourners that stretched outside St. Rita of Cascia Shrine Chapel in Chicago, where her funeral mass was held. Her longer-than-usual hair -- which Tilikum grabbed -- was being grown for Locks of Love, a cancer organization, Klages explained.
Beyond her public persona, the trainer was well-known for her beautiful handmade cards, so the Dawn Brancheau Foundation launched a "Cards from the Heart" campaign, delivering more than 400 Christmas cards to assisted living and nursing homes. On Valentine's Day, they brought more than 200 cards to nursing homes in three states.
"(The residents) absolutely loved it," said Peggy Wilson, activities and volunteer coordinator at Sunrise Assisted Living of Flossmoor. "These little gestures mean a lot."
In time, the foundation plans to expand its scope, including efforts to help animals and the environment. There is a 5K run/walk fundraiser scheduled on April 16, Brancheau's birthday, in Orlando, where participants also plan to do a community service project that weekend.
To date, the only lawsuit filed was by a New Hampshire family who was visiting the park that day, claiming their 10-year-old son had been traumatized, according to SeaWorld.
Klages cites the 14 nieces and nephews who are now without their doting aunt and said: "Get over it."
At SeaWorld, where a private memorial is planned Thursday for employees, the show must go on.
After Brancheau's death, the park resumed the show "Believe" -- and has performed it every day since, though without trainers in the water.
After a five-year run, "Believe" will close and a new show will debut in Orlando next month.
"Our goal is to return to in-water interaction with killer whales, but that decision won't be made until we can complete the safety enhancements at Shamu Stadium and gauge their effectiveness," said Fred Jacobs, SeaWorld spokesman.
Tilikum, who was involved in two previous fatalities, remains with the other whales in Orlando, Jacobs said.
"It is our goal to return him to shows, though he isn't currently in them," he said.
On the anniversary of Brancheau's death, Klages and her daughter plan to spend the day together, recalling better times.
"A lot of people are nice, but she was full," Klages said. "She showed us how to live a good life."
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