A 25-year-old New York high school science teacher on a cross-country cycling trip was killed Thursday in Oklahoma, struck from behind by a car driven by a woman who told police she was looking at her cell phone at the time of the crash.
The driver, 34, was uninjured, according to police, but they could not immediately confirm whether she had been charged with a crime. A new Oklahoma state law bans texting while driving, but it does not go into effect until November.
Wanninkhof was leading a group of more than two dozen riders from Maine to California with Bike & Build, a nonprofit organization that raises money for affordable housing. Bike & Build cyclists also volunteer directly: Wanninkhof’s group had recently stopped in Tulsa to paint a senior citizen’s home.
“We are all shaken by this terrible news, and this will be a difficult time for everyone in our community,” Bike & Build staff said in a statement.
Wanninkhof grew up near Miami and graduated from the University of Florida in 2012 with an engineering degree. He immediately joined Teach for America and began his career teaching science at a public performing arts school in the Bronx.
His class Web site offers a glimpse of the lessons he taught his students about force, momentum, energy and waves. But Wanninkhof said teaching was an education for him, too. His students taught him about the serious obstacles confronting young people who grow up in poverty.
“The middle-class ideal of meritocracy instilled me with the misguided belief that all my students needed to do was work harder and success would follow,” Wanninkhof wrote on his Bike & Build profile page. “This mindset was soon challenged when a student told me that she and her mom had been moving between relatives’ houses every week after they couldn’t pay rent. How on earth could I expect her to give her all to Newton’s Laws when she wasn’t sure where she’d be sleeping that evening?”
He was biking for affordable housing because he wanted to help.
“Education reform will be fruitless if we cannot guarantee that every child can return to a safe home in the evening,” he wrote.
Charissa Fernandez, the executive director of Teach for America-New York, said that members of the organization are heartbroken.
“He was well-known, loved and deeply respected in the TFA community as a dedicated STEM educator and passionate advocate for his students and community,” Fernandez said in a statement. “We witnessed his passion to fight the impact of systemic poverty both in the classroom and in his personal pursuits, including his commitment to Bike & Build. This is a tragic loss to our TFA family, and we will work with Patrick’s family, friends, and school community to find a way to honor him and his life’s work. He will be greatly missed.”
Wanninkhof and his sister Suzette — who rode across the country last year — learned to love cycling from their father Rik, a native of the Netherlands who commutes to work by bike.
When Patrick Wanninkhof wasn’t cycling, he liked to beat box, play bass guitar and — he wrote in his own bio — “build awesome demos for his physics classes.”
His parents said their son knew he’d had a privileged upbringing and wanted to do his part to help others who hadn’t had such good fortune.
“He had a heart for the underdog,” said his mother, Debbie Wanninkhof. “I’m so proud of him.'”