OCEAN CITY - Though it was meant as a celebration of the life that former Miss New Jersey Cara McCollum lived - and it was - the grief at her death was obvious among the 300 people who attended her memorial service in Ocean City on Saturday afternoon.
Men and women alike wept openly during the event, organized by the Miss New Jersey Education Foundation, as those closest to McCollum eulogized the Princeton University graduate and television news anchor who died Feb. 22.
Among the touching moments: a slide show chronicling her 24 years, the handing out of heart-shaped seed packets, and a solo by a classical pianist.
McCollum, 24, who worked for the upstart news broadcast SNJ Today out of Millville, died at Cooper University Hospital a week after she sustained massive head injuries in a one-car accident on an icy Route 55 in Pittsgrove Township, Salem County, on Feb. 15. A funeral was held in her hometown of Forrest City, Ark. on Feb. 28.
McCollum was crowned Miss New Jersey in 2013 and represented the state in the 2014 Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City. She graduated from Princeton with a degree in English in 2015.
Police said that McCollum wasn't wearing a seatbelt and that slushy, wet road conditions and speed played a factor in the accident. Her 2014 Ford Mustang apparently slid off the northbound side of the highway, struck a tree, spun around, and hit two more trees before coming to rest in a ditch.
McCollum underwent four hours of brain surgery the day after she was brought to the hospital. Friends took to social media imploring the public to pray for a miracle to save the woman who was also known for having created a charity, the Birthday Book Project, at age 16. The charity has delivered more than 25,000 books to underprivileged children for their birthdays.
McCollum had signed an organ-donor card, and her organs and tissue were given to save others, said her boyfriend, Keith Jones, an NBC10 news anchor, who was among those who spoke at the memorial service.
"She's my everything, she's my world," Jones said. "She is the greatest gift I was ever given."
Jones called their two-year courtship an "encyclopedia of memories."
"Out of all those people you touched, you picked Team Cara. And you picked me and then you took me to the moon and back . . . and you left me here to grow roots by myself. I miss you terribly," Jones said.
His words left nearly everyone inside the Ocean City Tabernacle struggling to maintain composure.
"It was beautiful to see them fall in love, so it's heartbreaking to see it end like this," their mutual friend HughE Dillon, a Philadelphia photographer, said just before the service.
Dillon said he recalled shooting photos of the couple on the one-year anniversary of the first time they met at the annual American Red Cross Red Ball in Philadelphia.
"They were just so happy together, so much in love," Dillon said. "It had only been a year that they had been together but the spark grew quickly and they just wanted to be together all the time."
Sally Johnston, executive director of the Miss New Jersey Education Foundation, which organized the service, said she was pleased that so many people attended.
Among those there were friends and colleagues of McCollum's state and national "pageant family," people from Princeton University, work colleagues of hers and of Jones', and members of the general public, organizers said.
McCollum's mother, Maureen, and her brother and several other family members attended, but did not speak during the service.
"That she touched so many people in her short life . . . and that some of them came here today to remember her just means so much to those of us who loved her," Johnston said.
Johnston told those gathered how she and McCollum had developed a special friendship during her yearlong reign as Miss New Jersey and that the young woman had a sharp wit and infectious laugh.
"By the end of a year like that, there isn't much you don't know about each other . . . you develop a unique kind of friendship and love," Johnston said. "Cara will always live in my memories and hold a very large piece of my heart."