Remembering an absent friend

April 6, 2009 at 5:16 am 2 comments

Speaking of bike commuting and March, I realized I let an important and sad anniversary pass without comment.  On March 22nd, 2006, Professor Bohdan Kulakowski, a colleague and long-time friend was riding to his home in Boalsburg, PA from the main Penn State campus when a van left the roadway and hit him.  Bohdan, 63 a the time, was a careful and safe rider but the helmet did not prevent massive internal injuries that caused his death a few minutes after the accident.  His loss, and the void it created in the lives of those who knew him, remains a vivid reminder of the risks we take when we decide to share the road with motor vehicles.

While any accidental and sudden death is tragic,  this loss is particularly heavy to me.  Bohdan was born in 1942 in German-occupied Poland.  He grew up during the Soviet era and was lucky enough to receive a good education, eventually earning an engineering doctorate and a prestigious position in a Polish research institute.  In 1979, he came to Penn State as a Fullbright fellow.  Students of recent history will recall that martial law was declared in 1980 in an effort to put down the uprising of the Polish people against Soviet control.  Bohdan decided to stay at Penn State, but spent a tortuous 2 years working to bring his wife Barbara and his children Darota and Dominik to the US.

He told us this story one evening in our home in Boise. He was visiting us as part of his sabbatical leave in 2004 while he and I were trying to finish the 3rd edition of a textbook we co-authored with the late Lowen Shearer.  My wife and I were honored that he shared this with us. I was particularly happy that our teen-age daughter could hear about it.  These are the moments when I realize how very fortunate I’ve been to live an academic life.  The people you get to know, and those you get to call friends and colleagues are truly wonderful.

On cold rainy nights like this one, I reflect on the irony that a man who survived the Nazis and the Soviets and became a beloved teacher, accomplished scholar and dear friend, was taken from us by a man who, 10 years earlier had taken disability pay claiming to be legally blind. The man’s defense was simply this:  “I’ve got a legal driver’s license”.  Amazing….

I didn’t know until this happened that there are ways in which people who’ve lost friends and family this way memorialize and remember them.  In Boalsburg, PA, on the spot where Bohdan was killed, a “ghost bike” memorial was erected.  This practice started in New York City, but it would appear that these memorials have sprung up around the world.

In a similar vein, the Ride of Silence is hosted across the country every May as a way to remember our fallen comrads.  This year’s is May 20th.  Let’s go for a ride that evening.

Professor Bohdan T. Kulakowski; 1942-2006

Professor Bohdan T. Kulakowski; 1942-2006

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