The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA


December 15, 2010

Mifflinburg grad was 'ray of sunshine'

Friends: Crash victim touched many lives

The photo of the twinkling-eyed, beaming young woman in the sorority sweat shirt says it all about Karlene Bilger, who was remembered Tuesday as always smiling, always happy, always brimming with life.

"I can't tell you how much we loved Karlene," said Betsy Sarneso, assistant director of the Center for Student Life at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, where Karlene was a senior and at one time part of the Zeta Tau Alpha sorority.

"She was just really a beautiful person, inside and out," said Sarneso, who's also IUP's Greek adviser. "Warm, outgoing, caring to everybody she met, just very easy to be with."

Bilger, 21, of Mifflinburg, died in a car accident Monday as she traveled south along Interstate 99 in Centre County. For unknown reasons, she swerved off the road and into the northbound lane, colliding with a truck driven by Robert Warner, 69, of Port Matilda, according to state police at Philipsburg. The accident investigation continues, state police said.

Friends from school tearfully recalled a dear friend who loved her cats, a thing for Eat N Park food and around whom there was never a dull moment.

"She talked about her cats a lot. It was so amazing. They each had personalities," said Samantha Litchard, 20, of Northumberland, and an IUP junior.

"Karlene was like a ray of sunshine. She was so outgoing. You could meet her and be friends with her within minutes," Litchard said, choking back tears. "She had the best personality."

Litchard spoke by phone from Orlando, Fla., where she is an intern at Walt Disney World in a program that Bilger herself was to begin in January. Bilger was majoring in management in IUP's Eberly College of Business and Information Technology.

Litchard and Bilger planned to do their internships together, but Bilger decided to come in the spring "because she didn't want to spend holidays away from her family," Litchard said.

IUP juniors Melissa Stranko, 20, and Abbie Charlton, 20, both of Pittsburgh, remembered the cat bond, too.

"She was in love with her cats," Stranko said with a hearty laugh. "She always made up little weird stories about her cats."

Stranko and Charlton also noted Bilger's tight relationship with her mother, Vanessa Swanseen, owner of Morning Glories Flower and Gift shop in Mifflinburg, and her sister, Kollie Bilger, who attends the University of Pittsburgh.

Charlton said she met Bilger's mother and stepfather in April when they brought a birthday feast for Bilger's 21st birthday, and that Bilger and her mother were exactly alike.

"She always talked about her mom," Carlton said, "and her sister Kollie, she really respected her."

Sarneso also recognized Bilger's close family ties.

"She loved her family," Sarneso said. "I never met her mom, but you just knew how close she was by how she talked" about her mother.

Borough officials mourn

Mifflinburg Mayor David Cooney, who said he's known Bilger's family for years, said his heart goes out to them.

"I feel so bad for both of them," he said of Bilger's parents.

Cooney did a tribute of sorts to Bilger, whom he called "a sweetheart," on his Facebook page, posting photos he took of her at his studio.

Dan Licthel, superintendent of the Mifflinburg Area School District, recalled Bilger from her days at Mifflinburg Middle School when he was its assistant principal.

"I remember her being a really nice kid," he said.

That's how Steven Shriver remembered her, too. The guidance counselor for sophomores and seniors at Mifflinburg High said he remembered Bilger as "a very upbeat kid."

"She was a pretty hard worker. She was active in school, very active in student government," he said. "She was just a pleasure to work with. She always had a smile on her face, and her sister has the same smile."

IUP students were informed Tuesday of Bilger's death in an e-mail by interim President David Werner, which also stated counseling services were available for students in need.

Michelle Fryling, IUP's media relations director, noted that IUP is in finals week; common practice there is to hold a memorial at a later date so that the family can attend. Students often do the planning for such services, she said.

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