In her last will and testament, Mary Ann Donahou left her loved ones with the message to not mourn her death but to "have a party and celebrate my life."
Close to 1,000 people helped celebrate Donahou's life at her funeral service Thursday morning at Calvary Temple Worship Center in Modesto. And while people laughed as fond memories were shared, by the end of the service those who knew her best could no longer hold back their grief. Family, friends and co-workers cried as they touched Donahou's coffin, draped in an American flag, before proceeding to her burial.
Donahou, a Stanislaus County crime scene technician, died Dec. 30 when she was struck by a car shortly after arriving at a home on Santa Fe Avenue in Hughson to investigate a shooting. She was 46.
Under a bright blue sky Thursday, her processional — accompanied by dozens of police cars and motorcycles — drove to her final resting place at Lakewood Memorial Park.
The cause of the accident is still under investigation and could take months to complete.
"The thought of living without her is almost unbearable," said her niece Marlo Rice during the serv- ice.
Rice, and everyone who described Donahou, talked of her bright personality that put people at ease, her caring and compassionate demeanor, her unequivocal love for her 12-year-old son Jake and her willingness to make time for anyone who needed it.
"She would grab my calendar and pencil herself in," Rice said. "She always made me a priority."
The day before her funeral, at the investigations unit of the Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department, Donahou's friends and co-workers shared stories about her larger-than-life personality.
They spoke of her contagious laugh and smile, her ability to make a grim situation bearable and her drive to excel.
"When she walked through the building, the hallways and the walls would light up with laughter," said community service officer Dorothy Gonzales. "She was a ray of sunshine."
In the office, Donahou "could put up with our crazy personalities and dish it back just as much as we could give it," said homicide Detective Jon McQueary.
Several people said she had a sense of humor that could "make a grown man blush."
During his eulogy Thursday, Sheriff Adam Christianson spoke about numerous commendations Donahou received. One letter mentions how she lifted latent prints off a CD that a man dropped during a burglary. Detectives found the man, who denied his part in the burglary. But the print was enough to send him to prison for two years.
Homicide Sgt. Brandon Kiely described a hot summer day in 2010 during which Donahou investigated a fatal shooting.
After participating in back-to-back search warrants, Donahou had been working for hours without a break when she was approached by a group of neighborhood children and "took the time to show them her equipment, how to look for latent prints and all about crime scene investigators," Kiely wrote in a recent job review.
Christianson said it is stories like these that made Donahou "a shining example of what an employee of the Sheriff's Department should be: competent and courageous, tenacious and tough, brave and dedicated yet understanding and compassionate to those who needed a helping hand."
Donahou was always striving to learn more and be better, her friends said. She had just started school and Modesto Junior College working toward a bachelor's degree, in hopes of someday teaching forensic science at a college.
An avid photographer, Donahou always had her camera in tow whether she was at a crime scene or on a family vacation. She entered her artwork at the Stanislaus County Fair last year and earned second place for two photographs.
When she wasn't working or doting over her son, Donahou enjoyed going to concerts and volunteered as a mentor at Shackleford Elementary School in Modesto.
Close friend and co-worker Raschel Johnson last saw Donahou fewer than two days before her death as Donahou prepared for her son's 12th birthday Dec. 29.
"At that time, she had told me that she was happy, she had everything she wanted, she needed nothing else in her life," Johnson said. "That helps me knowing that that is how she went. That everything was OK."
Bee staff writer Erin Tracy can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2366.