February 02, 2004

A Painful Goodbye
By Ginny Merriam of the Missoulian

Friends, family of slain reporter remember
woman's laugh, energy, determination

        KALISPELL - As a child, Jennifer Lynn Olson Servo liked to climb trees and sing "Yellow Submarine" at the top of her lungs. She liked to get up early on weekends and watch cartoons with her sister.

        As a University of Montana journalism student, she was known for her undrainable reservoir of energy, her love of sunbathing at Flathead Lake, sausage pizzas and sushi and her top-notch work in radio and television.

        As a young adult, she was loved by her friends and family for her impish wit and goofy laugh, her love of Tiffany's-style jewelry, her courage in moving to her first job at KRBC-TV in Abilene, Texas, and her ambition to be a news anchor as famous as Katie Couric.

        At her memorial service Thursday, people wept in disbelief that Jen was taken from them by a murderer in a distant city when she was only 22 and full of promise. A May graduate of UM, she had just started her new job in July.

        Northridge Lutheran Church barely held the 300-some people who came to remember her. They were family, friends from high school and college, from Missoula TV stations, from Missoula public radio. Members of her Army Reserve unit, the 347th Quartermaster Detachment, came with military honors, a rifle salute and an American flag that they gave to her sobbing mother, Sherry Abel.

        "She was known and loved by everyone around her and everyone who taught her," said UM radio-television professor Bill Knowles in his eulogy.

        Her sister, Christa Slaten, told those gathered that their last phone conversation was cut short by the crying of Slaten's baby, Mallory, born in July and the object of Jen's promise to be her favorite aunt. The last words they said to each other were "I love you."

        "Thank you for being my sister, Jen," Slaten said.

        "I know you are with God now," she said, "and I know I will see you again."

        Servo's father, Norman Olson, said in an interview the day before the service that his daughter was a special person who could become accomplished at whatever she tried. As an elementary school student in Columbia Falls, she wrote and illustrated her own books. She played the flute in band and then the baritone saxophone, when the sax was bigger than she was.

        "Seemed like as soon as she mastered something," he said, "she was on to the next thing."

        In a tribute Olson wrote and the Rev. Dan Heskett read at the service, Olson called his daughter "a free-thinking spirit." When other kids were making snowmen, Jen would make a snow mouse.

        "I will never understand why my daughter was taken away from me," he wrote.

        The lobby of the church was filled with photographs of Servo - as a baby, as a cheerleader at Columbia Falls High School, as a graduating senior from UM. Her blue high school letter jacket and her green Army Reserves jacket both hung on racks, empty. People looked, cried and hugged each other, saying "I can't believe it. I can't believe it."

        In school in Missoula, Servo got up at 4 a.m. for her job at KPAX-TV as a freshman and later worked as a reporter at KECI-TV. She was anchor on the evening news at Missoula's Montana Public Radio station, KUFM. She had incredible energy, said her boss at KUFM, news director Sally Mauk, who also taught her in class.

        "She stood out among the other students because of the seriousness she had about her work," Mauk said.

        When she was offered her first full-time reporting job in Abilene, she was excited to tell her mentors at UM, Knowles and Denise Dowling. Knowles told her that Abilene was flat, 360 degrees around the horizon.

        "She said, 'Don't worry,' " Knowles remembered. " 'I'll remember my Montana home. And I'll be fine.' "

        Servo was found murdered in her apartment the afternoon of Sept. 18 after she didn't return calls from her boss at the TV station. She was strangled and hit in the head, and Abilene police are investigating her death as a homicide.

        Police have not named a suspect, said Thad DeJesus, a reporter for the Abilene Reporter-News. Abilene, a city of 120,000 people, does not have a medical examiner and sends its autopsies to Fort Worth, 160 miles away. Results are not expected for five weeks, but police may have results of DNA tests late this week.

        This is the second murder this year in Abilene, DeJesus said. The first also took place in the Hunters Ridge Apartments complex where Servo lived. The two investigations are not linked.

        The people at the church Thursday in Kalispell gathered for "an unimaginable reason," the Rev. Heskett said.

        "Jennifer was murdered," he said. "That weighs heavy on us. A person filled with sickness or evil took her life."

        Heskett encouraged the mourners to pray and to concentrate on healing themselves, independent of what happens to the murderer.

        Those who came sought closure, Knowles said, but it was not to be.

        Working in news doesn't give extra insight, said Mauk.

        "I don't make sense of it," she said. "I don't make sense of it when we report this about anybody. When it's someone you knew, it just quadruples the grief. When someone this young dies a violent death, it's just unspeakable."

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