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USC grad's death stuns friends

Dawn Brancheau's college friends at USC remember her knack for lifting others when they were down.

That trait might have played a small role in Brancheau's drowning death Wednesday. SeaWorld officials said a killer whale pulled Brancheau into the water by her long, blond ponytail.

Last month, Brancheau told college friend Angie Weckel Madey she was growing her hair out to donate it to Locks of Love.

Word of Brancheau's death stunned and saddened her Alpha Delta Pi sorority sisters, who knew her by her maiden name, Dawn Loverde, at USC.

"She was so happy all the time," said Madey, of Cornelius, N.C., who met with her sorority sister during a SeaWorld trip last month. "And it was infectious - if you were around her, you were happy. ... I remember sitting in the hall and laughing, those hard stomach laughs, at things she said or did."

When somebody else was having a tough time, Brancheau always knew the right things to say to get them though it, Madey said.

"She was somebody you wanted to be around," said Padgett Lewis of Columbia, another of her sorority sisters. "Being a whale trainer at SeaWorld, that's not one of those jobs you expect somebody to have. But with the type of person she was and her interest in animals, it didn't surprise me."

Lewis also wasn't surprised that a Facebook group set up in Brancheau's honor was filled with stories about the outgoing trainer taking the time to talk with park visitors. "She believed in what she was doing," Lewis said.

Brancheau, 40, was the youngest of six children in a close-knit family. She was student body president and homecoming queen at Andrean High School in Merrillville, Ind.

After she earned a bachelor's degree in psychology in 1992, she worked for two years at Six Flags Great Adventure in New Jersey before landing a job at SeaWorld.

She then slowly worked her way up to the role she had envisioned during a childhood trip to SeaWorld - killer whale trainer.

"It was her dream to do it," Marion Loverde, her mother, told the Orlando Sentinel on Wednesday. "She loved her job."

The pain her family felt Wednesday was tempered by the knowledge Brancheau died doing something that was her passion.

"We as a family feel that she had one of the most awesome jobs in the world, and we loved watching her do it," her sister, Diane Gross, told the Chicago Tribune. "Words can't describe the loss that we suffered (Wednesday), but she lived a full life, and she lived life to the fullest. How many people in this world can say 'I ride Shamu for a living?'"

Despite living in Florida, Brancheau kept in constant contact with her family, inviting siblings, nieces, nephews and grandparents to see her at work. She and her husband, Scott, sent out more than 250 Christmas cards each year, always with an animal motif.

"There were walruses one year, then seals," Madey said. "I asked her when she was going to put Shamu on her Christmas card, and she said 'I'm saving that for when I retire.'"

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