The love of a family, the strength of a community

Robbie Hamby

Managing Editor

 

Last Wednesday morning Madison (Madi)  McCleary, who had just celebrated her 18th birthday 12 days earlier, and her brother Tanner, 11, headed to school together.  After a night of drizzle, the roadway, FM 1333, was slick.  Madi’s Toyota Camry was headed north, just a few short miles from their home near Charlotte, when the front right tire apparently went off the jagged asphalt edge of the roadway. 

Madison overcorrected to the left on the wet road, placing her in the oncoming lane where their vehicle was t-boned by a Ford F250 traveling south.  It is presumed that Madi and Tanner died instantly, which according to their parents, provides some level of comfort.

Kevin and Audrey McCleary, the parents of Madi and Tanner, find themselves recovering from the unimaginable. As parents they now begin traveling the unwanted path of grieving the loss of their children. But, they will not walk alone. Brokenhearted but held tightly by friends and family both close and far away, the McClearys said they will be forever grateful for the outpouring of love and support they have been shown since that ordinary morning of January 18th turned into a parent’s worst nightmare. 

Within minutes of finding out what happened, friends from Jourdanton Independent School District and work surrounded the couple.  Family has not left their side. Their door has been revolving continually as friends of Madison and Tanner stop by to show support. Meal trains began to be organized. Funds started to be gathered to help for funeral costs. School counselors and administrators met to discuss how to best help the grieving students.

This says something huge about our community.  About the community of Jourdanton, Charlotte, Pleasanton, Poteet, and Atascosa County.

We mourn as one.  

Community members say they are always amazed at the air of unity that can almost be felt physically when tragedy strikes. 

But, this isn’t just a testament to the area we live in.  This show of support is also a testament to what kind of people the McClearys are.  

Childhood friends of Audrey and Kevin have made their way to South Texas to comfort the family.  It doesn’t take long to recognize that Kevin and Audrey McCleary are special people.  

Humble, kind and caring.  

It only stands to reason that they had two special children with the same traits.  The parents knew this to be true. They said they had a very happy homelife with the children. They spent a great deal of time together, hugged each other and said I love you daily. Audrey stated that she and Kevin have no regrets.  And, from the outpouring of stories it showed that the children were happy and loved and loved life in return. One of Madi’s last Twitter retweets was “life is good.” Her Instagram handle was “Loving life and lifting heavy.” Further proof of the goodness of Madi and Tanner could be found in a stack of letters written by their friends after their deaths. 

Letters and notes from kids who were touched by the lives of their children. 

A few of Tanner’s friends wrote: “Y’all raised him good. He was the nicest person I know.”  

“The people that made his life a little rough, he still made them his best friend.”

“But if you think about it, his life on this mean, ugly earth is now over and he is now a living angel in heaven where he can hunt all he wants and play all of the sports he wants up there with Jesus Christ.  He will be forever missed and we can look back at how he changed our lives in a great way, and I can’t wait to see him again in heaven.”

Regarding Madison, 

“You were my leader and I was your follower. I remember I would always say how strong you were and how I wanted to be with you.” 

“One day in the gym she was going to powerlifting. I told her I wanted to and she straight up told me to go for it and that I could do anything!”

“Madi was very witty and she and I could laugh at anything. She could make anything funny and knew the right things to say.”  

“She was there for me even when I wasn’t there for her.” 

Jourdanton ISD has done their best to provide the students with space to mourn.  At the high school Madison’s locker is decorated as a memorial and locked, her friends are able to slip in notes for her. Tanner’s locker at the Junior High is equally decorated with special messages and tributes left by friends.

This helps the children cope with their grief. 

Church services, memorial services and prayers around the flag poles have been an almost continual occurrence this past week. Over a thousand people made their way to the services at Cowboy Fellowship on Sunday.  An estimated 1,500 people gathered at College Station for the final funeral services for the McCleary children on Monday, January 23. The motorcade included nine constable cars, two motorcycles and a miles long trail of vehicles.   

At every turn there are tears and teenagers locked in hugs.

You see stunned 6th graders not quite sure how to react. 

No one really knows how to react.  

One senior won’t be graduating this year.  One 6th grader won’t be meeting his ‘girlfriend’ at the Junior High dance.

And two parents are left to reconcile something that can’t be reconciled. 

Maybe it’s true, as the saying goes, only the good die young, because when describing Madison and Tanner, their shining attributes are evident.

Madison was head strong and  motivated.  She was so encouraging, she never quit, she set goals, worked hard and cared deeply. 

Tanner, at the young age of 11, was a gentleman.  He held doors open and had a tender heart.  His principal, Robert Rutkowski said, “He was a funny, jolly, respectful young man and he genuinely loved his friends. All of us are better people for having the honor to have known him and to have been part of his brief but meaningful life.” 

It’s not just Atascosa County who have joined in mourning the loss of these two precious people. Towns as far away as Natalia, Poth and College Station have worn blue in order to show unity in mourning.  Schools have sent cards, posters and balloons.  Money has been donated from schools and individuals in astounding amounts.  A Go Fund Me account has raised over $50,000 for the McCleary family. Students from Pleasanton and Poteet even organized a memorial at the Atascosa Riverpark this past Saturday.  Hundreds showed up and participated in a balloon release.  Some who knew the kids spoke, pastors prayed and songs were sung. One song was written by Madi’s friends for her and her little brother.  

Lots and lots of tears have been shed. 

The JHS school principals Keith Chapman and Connie Nixon said they are letting the kids mourn as they see fit. It’s been an emotional roller coaster. Soon they will have to get back to focusing on school work. It won’t be easy for the ones who sit in a classroom with an empty seat that Madison and Tanner once occupied.

It especially won’t be easy for their parents. The house will eventually empty and the community support will wane. Shock will wear off and the pain of losing their two precious children will settle in their bones, into their very core. 

It’s a pain the couple have experienced before. They lost a daughter in utero at 21 weeks due to Turner’s Syndrome in 2002. 

As you watch the McClearys you see they are holding things together for the people around them.  

The parents who have lost so much are the ones offering comfort.

It’s a beautiful testament to the Christian character and principals they raised Madison and Tanner with.  

Jesus exemplified.

They have no regrets.  Both Madison and Tanner were very active in sports with practices and after school activities. Sometimes connecting for dinner was impossible. The night of January 17 they were all home.  A typical, loving family, having dinner and chit-chatting.  Something precious, but that families often take for granted. 

That night they all said “I love you” as they headed to bed. 

It was an evening their parents are so thankful they had.

Their mother Audrey said she and Kevin would often talk about how lucky they were, wondering how they ended up with such great kids.   

Tanner was so tender-hearted, he favored the underdog.  He helped everyone out. He loved hunting with his dad.  “It was his favorite thing to do. Hunting, fishing, just being out doors.” 

When describing Madi, her mom said, “She was an old soul, just so wise.”  

Like her mom, Madi had plans to enter into the medical field.  She had been accepted to Sam Houston for the fall and planned to study pre-med.  Audrey McCleary works at STRMC as an ER nurse and Director of the Emergency Department.  It’s difficult for first responders on such accident scenes involving children, but with the McCleary children it hit closer to home.  Kevin McCleary was the first to arrive on the scene. The first responders on the scene know Audrey, and knew these were her children.  The McCleary parents were at the site and saw how hard they worked to save their children.  They will be forever thankful.

Everyone has wanted to help in anyway they can.  

The door has been revolving with people bringing food, drinks, condolences and lots of hugs. There have been text messages, Facebook and Instagram posts, snapchats and tweets offering condolences and sharing pain. 

“There is so much love in this community.  We didn’t think we would ever call anywhere but College Station home, but this is home,” she said.

The family wants to start a scholarship in the kids names.  They are excited about the prospect of giving back to the school and community that has shown them so much support.  

“If we ever have to give any parents any advice it would be, take more pictures.  It doesn’t matter if they say they don’t like pictures, make them anyway.  You can never have enough pictures.”

They are thankful for the photos they have as a family, of the kids in sports and hunting.

Tanner wasn’t the only outdoorsman in the family.  Madison wasn’t afraid of skinning a deer. Of course, it helped that she loved anatomy.

Both of the kids did well in school and were on the honor roll.  In sixth grade Tanner was on the 7th grade UIL Academic Chess team.  Madison was in the National Honor Society.  She was awarded numerous academic and all-district awards for volleyball, track, power-lifting.   The list goes on.  

Their outstanding reputations have even reached the Vatican where The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass for the Souls of Madison and Tanner McCleary will be offered in Rome, Italy.  

Last summer Madison was chosen to travel to a clinic of future medical leaders in Massachusetts where she was personally taught by some of the greatest minds in medicine.  She was able to witness surgeries and had dreams of becoming a plastic surgeon.  

Kevin and Audrey didn’t know that their daughter was an organ donor until they got a call from the medical examiner.

 “We are so proud of her for making that decision, but she was so mature.” She had been so giving in life and she is still giving. 

And once again, the McClearys show where Madi got her compassionate, giving heart when they made the decision to let Tanner be an organ donor too.  

The McClearys have stated that they want to remain a part of the lives of their children’s friends. “We love their friends and want to see them grow up. We want to receive graduation announcements, invitations to baseball games, sponsor their animals at the livestock show. Our door will always be open to them as their second home.”

A precious gift indeed.

 

For a story featuring Madison and Tanner’s sports accomplishments and activities see   page 1C.  Full obituaries on page 13C

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