Crash claims life of ‘amazing young man’ from Gainesville
On a Saturday three years ago, best friends Sherri Means and Corinthia Fleet were walking around Silver Dollar City, and the subject of grandchildren came up.
“Soon enough, you’ll be a grandma,” Corinthia told Sherri, the mother of an 18-year-old daughter named Azelin.
“You have to have a man for that,” Sherri answered with a chuckle.
“Well, hopefully, the Lord will bring the perfect young man to the church someday,” Corinthia replied encouragingly, referring to the tiny Sovereign Grace Fellowship congregation in Mountain Home, Arkansas, where both women are members.
The next day, Sunday, Ozark County’s Klessig family attended services at that little Mountain Home church for the first time, with eldest son Danial, then 18, and his younger brother, Jacob, walking through the door ahead of their parents and other siblings.
Corinthia and Sherri’s jaws dropped. “I didn’t mean the Lord would do it the next day!” Corinthia whispered to Sherri.
In such a small congregation, Danial and Azelin quickly discovered each other, and before long, it was obvious to those around them that they were attracted to each other.
Azelin’s dad, Trent Means, seeing what was happening, took what he calls “preemptive action.”
“I asked Danial if he was interested in courting Azelin. Probably out of fear, Danial said no,” Trent told the Times Monday. “Then I found out he really was interested. I said, ‘If you are interested in my daughter, you must go through me. That’s the way it works.’”
A little later Danial approached Trent and admitted that, yes, he actually was interested in Azelin, and he wanted to ask permission to court her.
“He told me later that, before he asked me, he threw up, he was so nervous,” Trent said, laughing.
Trent, who serves as a teaching pastor at Sovereign Grace, told Danial if he wanted to court his daughter, he would have to let Trent disciple him. “I said, ‘You and I will be getting together for discipleship, and it will be like spiritual boot camp,’” Trent said. “I wanted him to be a man of the Word. I told him the Bible would be his authority, direction and guide as he prepared for life and for possibly marrying my daughter.”
Danial responded eagerly to the challenge. He joined Trent and the other men of the church for a 6 a.m. Bible study every Tuesday before work and another Bible study on Wednesday nights after work, as well as the regular church service and dinner on Sundays.
“He did everything I asked him, and he was an amazing young man I was looking forward to having as my son-in-law,” Trent said.
That dream was not to be. Daniel, 21, died about 5 p.m. Friday, July 26, in a head-on collision on Highway 5 about 11 miles north of Gainesville. He was 1 mile from home, his family’s Jersey Knoll Farm off County Road 837.
Also killed in the crash were the occupants of the other vehicle, Paul Cowherd, 57, and his wife Marti, 52, of Higginsville. According to the Missouri State Highway Patrol online crash report, the accident occurred when the 1998 Ford Expedition Danial was driving northbound crossed the centerline and impacted head-on a 2002 Dodge pickup traveling southbound. Paul Cowherd was the driver of the southbound vehicle, which was towing a travel trailer; his wife was a passenger. All three victims were wearing seatbelts, according to the report.
Driving home through the night
Danial’s parents, Matthew and Rachel Klessig, with their 4-month-old baby Reuben, were in Houston, Texas, Friday night when the Missouri State Highway Patrol trooper told them the tragic news by phone. They had been in Houston 10 days, and Matt had just been released from the hospital at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center the day before after having a rare, cancerous tumor removed from his neck on July 18. He was supposed to have stayed in Houston at least another week for follow-up exams, but on that terrible night, Rachel and Matt immediately packed up their baby and their belongings and headed home, rushing north through the night.
Rachel drove. Matthew, whose voice is very weak due to the tracheostomy he underwent, could not move his head. It was a very quiet and solemn 11-hour trip, Rachel said. Family friends Belinda and Steven Tucker from Mountain Home met them halfway, in Hope, Arkansas, to help with the driving.
State troopers had come to Jersey Knoll Farm, where Rachel’s sister was caring for the Klessigs’ seven other children while Matt and Rachel were in Houston. Knowing her children’s hearts were broken, Rachel desperately wanted to to get home and “hold my babies,” she said.
Because they were unable to make calls during the long drive from Houston, and also because of the late hour, some extended family members and friends learned of the tragedy from online posts by MSHP and media outlets, including the Ozark County Times.
It’s not known why the vehicle Danial was driving crossed the center line. However, fatigue may have played a role.
Known as a hard-worker, Danial was employed full-time as a mill hand in the feed mill at Gregg Farm Services in Midway, Arkansas. The work could be physically demanding, especially on hot days. And, for the last few weeks, Danial had gotten up at five o’clock each morning to do his Bible study before leaving for his 30-mile drive to Midway.
“He’d been getting up so early because he said he was just too tired when he got home from work to do his Bible study. He found himself too tired and couldn’t concentrate,” Rachel said. “So he got up early to do it.”
She believes he probably read his Bible during breaks at the feed mill. Everyone who knew Danial knew he took his Bible everywhere. So they knew his Bible had to be in his vehicle that was demolished in the crash. Monday, Rachel’s sister went to the salvage yard to retrieve it from the wreckage. It is a comfort to Danial’s family and friends to see its dogeared and heavily noted pages, evidence of someone who was, indeed, becoming a man of the Word.
‘A treasure of a young man’
Paul VanGulick, the Grace Sovereign pastor who will officiate at Danial’s funeral service Saturday in Mountain Home, had at one time worked with Danial at Gregg Farm Services.
“He was a focused, diligent worker,” VanGulick said, “a thoughtful young man who took his work seriously. He worked in the mill, helping make feed and loading up customers, doing everything with the feed mill side of the business.”
Danial was interested in “deeper philosophical issues,” VanGulick said. “He would talk about things in Scripture that he was learning from.”
Some of those conversations came during the times the two men would get together to play chess. “He would beat me,” VanGulick said. “He was humble about it, but he enjoyed winning.”
VanGulick said he noticed a “distinct change” in Danial two years ago after he “trusted in the Lord as his Savior” and then was baptized. “You could see the joy in his life. He had an eagerness for the Word,” he said.
The Klessigs’ neighbors, Joe and Beth Drobesko, consider themselves adoptive grandparents to the Klessigs’ nine children. “We moved here in 2003, and the Klessigs were some of the first people we got to meet,” Joe Drobesko said. “Danial was about 5, so we’ve watched him grow up. He’s always been easygoing … always happy.”
Joe recalled a recent conversation with Danial when the families were visiting. “He was telling me about his work and what it entailed and how he was concerned about safety. I could tell he was very proud of the work he did, and he took it very seriously,” Joe said.
“Usually a 21-year-old probably wouldn’t take time to talk to us old fogies, but Danial was a quintessential young man, the kind any of us would love to have as a son, grandson, nephew, friend or colleague. Once you sat down with him, he lit up. He had a smile on his face all the time. It would broaden out, and you saw this warmth come out of his inner self. He was such a treasure of a young man,” Joe said.
“A lot of kids, when they get to be 17 or 18, they want to pack their bags and move out. Not Danial. He had bought property and was working hard on it. He and Azelin were talking about their future there. He was fixing fence, looking to get some cattle,” Joe said.
VanGulick agreed that Danial “took the idea of farming seriously. He wasn’t just casually thinking farming would be interesting. He didn’t just follow the simplest, easiest path. He had unique ideas he wanted to try on the land he’d bought adjacent to his family’s land. He’d done research into farming and large-scale gardening. He had things he wanted to try to be self-sustaining.”
Hard working and caring
Danial had grown up on his family’s own storybook farm that is largely self-sustaining. His mother, Rachel, said he planned to build a house for him and Azelin on the 40 acres he had bought from his grandfather, Gerald Klessig.
Danial was born in Wisconsin, and there’s little story behind the spelling of his name, Rachel said.
“He was our first baby. I was 18, and Matt was 21. It was probably 15 minutes after he was born, and the nurses wanted to put his name on the little card on the bed and fill out the paperwork. They asked us his name and how to spell it. We spelled it out loud to them, and it wasn’t until we saw it later on paper that we realized it was spelled wrong. But we didn’t care enough to have it changed. The adrenaline was flowing, and we were excited,” Rachel said.
Later, she would joke that Danial was her “practice kid” since he was the first of nine. Remembering her fine boy, she added, “I guess I didn’t do too bad.”
The Klessig family moved to Ozark County in 1998, when Danial was a year old, after Gerald Klessig retired from a railroad career and bought land here. He offered to sell his family members parcels of the property, and they moved here together and established their farms.
Like his siblings, Danial was homeschooled. “He struggled,” Rachel said. “I’m glad we homeschooled because he was dyslexic and had trouble getting his thoughts onto paper. If you put a test in front of him, to write something, he wouldn’t do well. But if you talked to him, gosh, there was so much knowledge up there. He could read a book and practically recite everything in it. He was hard to get started in a conversation, but if you could get him going, it was hard to get him to stop. He was so thoughtful and contemplative. Even as a kid, you couldn’t get anything by him. He was as smart as a whip.”
Danial was also tender and attentive to his siblings. “I’ve found all these pictures of him snuggling his baby siblings, every one of them as they came along,” she said, adding that, most recently, Danial was often seen sitting and rocking his 4-month-old brother, Reuben.
Danial started working full-time when he was 16, first at Crystal Lake fish hatchery near Ava, “outside in the elements, for several years,” Rachel said. That full-time job followed his first part-time job, at the mushroom factory in Theodosia. He wasn’t old enough to drive yet, so he rode with a cousin. After the job at the fish hatchery, he moved on to become a mill hand at Gregg Farm Services.
He was a hard-working young man, his mother said, adding, “He would bend over backward to do anything I asked without complaining.”
The family’s church friend Corinthia Fleet experienced that helpful attitude firsthand. “We were moving from one side of Mountain Home to the other two years ago. Danial and his family hadn’t been going to our church very long, but he found out we would need help, and he took the day off work to help us,” she said. “He showed up early at our house and helped us move all day long. He was the first one there, and the last one to leave. And it was cold—in December. He was just a precious young man who showed love in all aspects of his life. That’s what made him unique. You just don’t find that quality in too many 20-year-olds.”
Corinthia also noticed how kind Danial was to his grandmother, Donna Klessig, who is blind after suffering a stroke a few years ago. On Sundays, Danial would leave home an hour before the rest of his family so he could take his grandmother to her Mountain Home church, which started 45 minutes earlier than the service at Sovereign Grace. After dropping her off at Trinity Lutheran, he would wait in the parking lot at Sovereign Grace until others arrived. Or, because he had a key to the building, he would sometimes go inside and make sure everything was ready for the service, setting up chairs, if needed. After the service, he picked up his grandmother and brought her to Sovereign Grace for the meal the congregation shared each Sunday.
“At lunch Danial would sit her down, help make her plate and genuinely take care of her,” Corinthia said. And then, after lunch, he drove his grandmother back home.
The Klessigs love playing board games as a family, and for several years Danial and his oldest brothers Jacob and Isaac extended that enjoyment to Mountain Home at the Game Portal, a social gaming store where customers play cards and board games with their friends. Owners Chris and Vikki Francis said Monday they were heartbroken to hear news of Danial’s death. “He was a wonderful young man … a soft spoken, gentle person who was always kind to others,” they said in an online message to the Times. “He will be sorely missed by many.”
They plan to host a benefit tournament sometime soon “to allow his many friends to celebrate his life and contribute to his memory,” they said.
As Azelin’s dad, Trent Means, continued discipling Danial, he was pleased to see the young man grow in his desire to know the Word of the Lord. He enjoyed Danial’s company and spent a lot of time with him. In addition to the 6 a.m. Tuesday and the Wednesday night Bible studies, Danial often joined the Means family for dinner on Monday nights. “Part of courtship is having a relationship with the whole family,” Trent said.
On many Friday evenings, he also met with Danial one-on-one to continue their study and their discussions. But last Friday night, “something was going on, and we didn’t meet,” Trent said sadly.
Rachel believes Danial might have opted to head home to help his aunt care for the other children since their parents were in Houston at the cancer center. The missed opportunity makes Danial’s death especially hard for Trent.
“It’s tough. I wish we would have met,” he said. “Danial was really a precious person, like a son to me.”
(See obituaries, page 8.)