The Wisconsin news anchor who died of apparent suicide had a tragic heartbreak before — when her high school boyfriend died of a rare form of brain cancer in 2016.
Neena Pacholke, who was to be married in less than two months, had lost her first love Jordan Harris when he was 18.
Harris was diagnosed with primitive neuroectodermal tumors in 2011, and after two separate battles with cancer, succumbed to the disease shortly before the two were about to begin their freshman year at the University of South Florida.
The WAOW anchor, who died Saturday and was remembered by family and colleagues for her infectious smile and positive spirit, spoke about the loss of her first love in an interview shared by Moffitt Cancer Center in 2016, three years after Harris died.
“I just remember sitting there, all of us around him. I remember holding his hand when he died. I knew it was going to be hard, but I always told him I’d be through it,’ Pacholke said.
Pacholke and Harris had met their freshman year of high school in biology class and were friends before they started dating, Pacholke said in the video.
Pacholke also wrote about her boyfriend and her hopes for more money for childhood cancer in a blog she wrote at the time entitled “Kids Get Cancer Too.”
“It has been thirteen months and eighteen days since the love of my life got his angel wings from a rare form of brain cancer. He is the main reason behind my blog topic and will continue to be the driving force behind everything I do in life,” she wrote in one post.
Even after his death, Pacholke continued to raise money and volunteer with cancer research, according to an article published by The Oracle, the student-run newspaper of the University of South Florida.
Speaking to the newspaper in her freshman year, shortly after she lost her boyfriend, Pacholke said she was able to maintain her positive outlook by thinking about Harris.
“You still have your bad days, but in the end they say everything has a reason,” she said at the time. “Part of me questions that, but it will still make you a stronger person. It sucks that you don’t have that person all day to text, but I still have his morals to carry around with me.”
Pacholke, a longtime basketball player, was helped through her grief by the head coach of her university at the beginning of her freshman year on the women’s basketball team.
“Neena and Jordan had a special bond and a lot of people don’t understand that relationship, especially as young adults and the love they had for each other in high school,” Jose Fernandez, the head coach of USF’s women’s basketball team, said in 2016.
Pacholke graduated from the University of South Florida, where she wrote three seasons as a point guard – in 2017 and shortly after, she took on a role as a reporter at News 9.
She was later promoted to anchor in February 2019, according to her website.
Pacholke’s former coach said the team was “devastated” by the young journalist’s sudden death.
“Our prayers are with the Pacholke family at this extremely difficult time. Please keep them in your mind,” Fernandez said in a statement on Twitter.
Pacholke’s colleagues at News 9 echoed those sentiments.
“Neena Pacholke, our beloved morning anchor passed away suddenly on Saturday,” 9 WAOW said in a statement. “The whole team here at News 9 is absolutely devastated by the loss, as we know so many others are.”
Her co-anchor said that with her warm personality and smile, Pacholke was always happy and full of life and was a positive role model for many.
“Being your co-anchor Neena was an honor. You were Batman and I was Robin. When I joined WAOW, you made it clear that we would work hard and compete with the best,” her co-anchor Brendan Mackey said in a Facebook post. “Let’s remember Neena Pacholke as the beautiful person she was. The brightest light in the room. The biggest smile and the funniest laugh.”
Pacholke was expected to marry within two months at the time of her death, her older sister Kaitlynn Pacholke told the Tampa Bay Times. An online marriage registry for Neena Pacholke and Kyle Haase lists a wedding date of October 12.
If you are struggling with suicidal thoughts or going through a mental health crisis and live in New York City, call 1-888-NYC-WELL for free and confidential crisis advice. If you live outside the five boroughs, you can call the 24/7 National Suicide Prevention hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or go to SuicidePreventionLifeline.org.