ST. PETERSBURG — For more than a decade, Robert Shepherd was a resounding voice in a community effort imploring state officials to put in a stoplight at the entrance to Eckerd College. Speeding drivers and daunting traffic conditions, he argued, made the area near the intersection at 54th Avenue S "a tragedy waiting to happen."
Last year, Shepherd became that tragedy. The 85-year-old retired U.S. diplomat was killed Nov. 8 in a car crash at the very spot he had tried to make safer.
Three months after Shepherd's death, calls for a traffic light have paid off.
The Department of Transportation will install a traffic light at the campus entrance sometime over the next year, Eckerd College president Donald Eastman announced Tuesday.
"I'm thrilled," Eastman said. "I have no doubt that (Shepherd's death) is what led to it. It galvanized a lot of people."
Details of the plan will be given today at a Tallahassee news conference led by state Sen. Jeff Brandes.
Brandes, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee, will be joined by DOT Secretary Ananth Prasad, Sen. Jack Latvala and Rep. Kathleen Peters, a 1999 Eckerd alumnus.
All were instrumental in the renewed push to get the stoplight, Eastman said. He specifically credited Brandes and Latvala.
"The senators, in particular, were key actors," he said.
Word of the new traffic light was also welcomed by Shepherd's family.
"I'm thankful that after 12 years of petitioning for a traffic light at this dangerous intersection, it is finally going to be installed," his wife, Nena Shepherd, 88, said in a statement Tuesday night.
Shepherd, who was a Rhodes Scholar and worked as a diplomat and U.S. government trade negotiator before retiring to St. Petersburg in 1994, was a familiar face among the college community. He and his wife lived in a sixth-floor condo at Dolphin Cay, across the street from Eckerd, where they were members of the Academy of Senior Professionals.
They drove to the college nearly every day and came to know well the difficulties of traversing 54th Avenue S near the campus' main entrance.
Shepherd and his neighbors implored DOT officials to bring back a stoplight that was removed in 1992 after transportation officials said traffic volume was too low to justify it. The department didn't budge.
Eckerd also took up the cause, repeatedly petitioning state officials to install a light at the location. Still, transportation officials said the area didn't qualify to have a light installed.
Then came the November crash.
Shepherd was pulling off campus in a 2002 Buick LeSabre when he ventured into the path of a Chevrolet pickup on 54th Avenue S. The ensuing collision crushed the car's driver's side. Two people in Shepherd's car, Frances Sparzani, 89, and Aldo Sparzani, 87, were injured. Shepherd later died at Bayfront Medical Center.
That, Eastman said, rallied the Eckerd community.
More than 4,000 people signed an Internet petition on change.org "to prevent another tragedy along Pinellas Bayway." The petition was sent to lawmakers and state officials, who were also inundated with citizen calls urging support for the effort.
"We're just very grateful for everyone who participated in trying to make this case," Eastman said.