Wednesday, December 13, 2017
Public safety

Crash at St. Petersburg intersection kills man who fought for stoplight there

ST. PETERSBURG — Robert Shepherd solved problems.

His resume bore witness: Rhodes Scholar, U.S. diplomat, government trade negotiator.

He retired in 1994 and, with his wife, Nena, moved to St. Petersburg. They came, in large part, to live among other intellectually curious folks who belonged to the Academy of Senior Professionals at Eckerd College.

The couple bought a sixth-floor condo at Dolphin Cay, across the street from Eckerd, and drove to campus nearly every day. Amid that frequent traverse over 54th Avenue S, Shepherd discovered a new problem he thought worth solving: The area desperately needed a stoplight.

Shepherd and his neighbors organized a meeting. They confronted officials from the state Department of Transportation. Drivers speed, they said. The traffic is daunting. Just pulling off campus is frightening.

"It's a tragedy," Shepherd said, "waiting to happen."

The request was denied.

On Wednesday evening, 11 years after his proclamation, Shepherd pulled off campus, onto 54th Avenue S and into the path of a Chevrolet pickup. The impact crushed the driver's side of his 2002 Buick LeSabre and pitched it over the median.

Shepherd was taken to Bayfront Medical Center. Just before 9 p.m., at the age of 85, he died.

• • •

For years, in fact, the entrance to Eckerd had a stoplight.

In 1992, it was removed after state transportation officials determined the area's traffic volume was too low to justify it.

When Shepherd and his neighbors pleaded for help in 2001, department officials told them the same thing.

Eleanor Wolf, who also lives in Dolphin Cay, attended the meeting.

"They were very pessimistic," she said of transportation officials. "They did basically say, 'I hate to tell you this, but something terrible is going to have to happen before one goes in.' "

In the years that followed, as the college grew and nearby communities expanded, Eckerd took up the effort.

With the city's backing, the college petitioned for a stoplight about three years ago, said Bill J. McKenna, director of planning, development and construction.

Transportation officials, he said, again found that the area didn't qualify.

"The counts were off," he said. "They were studying in the summertime and we said, 'Wait a minute. The school is closed in the summer. This doesn't make sense.' "

Eckerd hired its own engineers who, McKenna said, determined that the entrance met the criteria. The study found that, in the westbound turn lane, enough cars had to wait enough time before turning left onto campus that a stoplight was warranted.

Transportation officials disagreed.

"We had studied this in the past and it did not meet signal warrants," Kristen Carson, the regional transportation department spokeswoman, said in an email. "However, our traffic operations engineers will review this area again."

Police said the crash was an accident and no charges will be filed.

Two people in Shepherd's car also were injured. Frances Sparzani, 88, was reported to be in critical condition, and Aldo Sparzani, 87, was treated for minor injuries.

The people in the pickup were not injured.

McKenna hopes the crash will now convince the state that a light is needed. He wishes they had made that decision earlier.

"It's a shame," he said. "The whole thing is a shame."

• • •

By Thursday afternoon, dozens if not hundreds of Shepherd's friends knew of his death. They were grief-stricken, certainly, but also outraged. It didn't have to happen, they said. The stoplight should have been there.

At least one person, though, didn't want to hear the details. His wife, Nena, only knew that the man she married 54 years ago, the man she called "Bobby," was gone.

The stoplight, the traffic counts, the transportation department — none of that mattered.

They met in Paris when both worked for the U.S. government. She was an illustrator. He edited military publications.

Their first date was at an opera house. They saw Faust. The curtain got stuck.

That still makes her smile.

They raised two kids together and found places to call home all around the world: France, Thailand, Switzerland.

This past summer was among the few the Shepherds didn't spend traveling Europe.

She will miss all of him.

His dry, sometimes corny sense of humor. His dark eyes and wide smile. His impeccable taste in food and his better taste in wine.

When Nena Shepherd woke up Thursday, she didn't think of a stoplight. She just knew, on that morning, she wouldn't sit with her husband over coffee. They wouldn't share warm croissants. And he wouldn't, like nearly every other morning, read her poetry.

Times staff writer Lorrie Lykins and researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. John Woodrow Cox can be reached at [email protected]

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