My Civic Engagement: In Memoriam R. J. Tillman

I would like to take a moment to reflect on the death of Ronald “R. J.” Tillman, one year ago today. I didn’t know R. J., but his life and death have had a profound impact on my life during the past year.

Web headshot (145x165)One year ago, R. J. — a student in Wagner’s accelerated second-degree nursing program — was doing something I do most days of the week: He was riding his bike on Howard Avenue. He had been studying in the library with his classmates, and he was headed home. It was about 9:15 p.m.

Minutes later, only a few feet downhill from the Oval, a car slammed into him and kept right on driving. According to local news reports, neighbors heard the impact and immediately ran outside. They found R. J. lying face down, motionless, his backpack and his bike and one of his sneakers scattered across the road. He was taken by ambulance to a hospital and shortly pronounced dead.

I found out about it the next morning, in an email that began like this:

“Dear Wagner Community Members,

“Last evening, at about 9:15 p.m., a Wagner student, who was riding a bicycle on Howard Ave., was struck by a hit-and-run driver. The student died a short time later at a local hospital.”

When I read those words, I had just ridden my bike up Grymes Hill and onto Howard Avenue, pedaling only a few feet away from where R. J. had been killed, although I did not pass the site of his death.

I was chilled to the bone. Numb, outraged, stunned — and, strangely enough, a strand of guilt edged into this confusing swirl of feelings.

A NY1 reporter interviews me about our traffic safety campaign, with our Slow Down, Save Lives sign next to us.

A NY1 reporter interviews me about the Grymes Hill traffic safety campaign, with the Slow Down, Save Lives sign next to us.

My local biking had shown me that Howard Avenue was unnecessarily dangerous for cyclists and for pedestrians. Granted, its hilly contours introduce unavoidable hazards; but no matter how careful you are as a cyclist, if drivers flout basic traffic safety rules — number one among those being speed limits — and lack basic courtesy toward other users of the road, you can find yourself in danger.

That’s what I call “unnecessary danger.”

Now, about that feeling of guilt I mentioned: I myself was hit by a car while biking on Howard Avenue the previous June. It happened in the morning, in the bright sunlight, on my way to work, at an intersection that I always felt was a problem.

My situation was in every other respect completely different from R. J.’s. I was not badly hurt; the driver immediately stopped and was completely chagrined by what had happened; another driver stopped and helped me, too; a police officer took a report; an ambulance came and the EMTs checked me out; and I was on my way again, shaky but basically fine.

I was mad, too, thinking, “I knew this was going to happen someday. Why can’t this road be made safer for cyclists and pedestrians? After all, it’s a neighborhood, with several school campuses located all along its length.”

Those thoughts started an advocacy campaign to make Grymes Hill safer for pedestrians and cyclists. Sadly, it was R. J.’s death that really made it take off. Hence, the sense of guilt.

But, it was a productive kind of guilt and sadness. It has taken me to see new places, meet new people, and try new experiences. I’ve become an active member of Transportation Alternatives, a New York City nonprofit that advocates for better public transit and safer streets for pedestrians and cyclists. I have been energized and encouraged by T.A.’s Staten Island Committee. I have attended and spoken up at our local Community Board and the police precinct’s community meeting. I’ve written a letter to the editor of the Staten Island Advance. I’ve met with the Staten Island Transportation Commissioner, Tom Cocola, and the staff of our city council member, Debi Rose. I’ve organized a community meeting on campus and collaborated with neighbors and neighborhood associations.

tillman bike rack with bikeAll of this activity has brought results: a new traffic light on Howard Avenue, lines repainted, the speed limit lowered to 25 miles per hour. Neighbors around Grymes Hill and farther afield have posted signs that the Wagner College president’s office funded, featuring the words “Slow Down, Save Lives.” The latest is a bike rack with a sign in memory of R. J., which was a gift of the Wagner provost's office and the brainchild of a group of first-year Wagner students who worked with me on traffic safety last semester. (Many thanks also go to Bay Street Bicycles and South Shore Signs for their generous help with this project.)

And the work continues. At a college with such a deep ethic of service to the community, this work has become my civic engagement, inspired by a student I never knew but who has meant so much to me.

Today, remember R. J. Tillman and remember his family and friends. And when you are driving: Remember to slow down, use caution, drive with care. It may be your turn to save a life.

A sign memorializes RJ Tillman

The sign on the bike rack reads, "In Memory of Ronald 'R. J.' Tillman, Wagner College Nursing Class of 12/12/12. Killed while biking on Howard Avenue after studying in the Horrmann Library, 2/12/12."

— Laura Barlament, Editor, laura.barlament@wagner.edu

February 12, 2013

  • tk

    Beautiful article. There should be a second Tillman memorial sign, posted by the road with the words ‘drive safe’ instead of ‘cycle safe.’

  • Nancy Tillman

    Thank you so much for your kind thoughts and words, Laura. And thanks for your efforts to make Howard Ave a safer place. It has been heartbreaking to lose my son, but so comforting to know that some positive changes have come about.

  • Tom Hamilton

    One wonders about the mind that can leave a dying person in the middle of a road, or the minds that can remove signs admonishing drivers to do it safely. Laura, thank you for your efforts, and no need to feel guilt, we all need a shock to be impelled to act.

  • Zulan

    I didn’t know RJ Tillman either but I’m sure he would be happy to know that his death inspired you to do all the work done to impove his community.

  • Jeff Peters

    A very nice article Laura. Having a close friend lose a sibling this way was terrible, but it’s great to know that there are people keeping R.J’s memory alive and trying to get the word out about driving safe. For all involved, keep up the good work. Always thinking of you Dave, Steve and Jeanette.

  • Jeffrey Peters

    A very nice article Laura. Having a close friend lose a sibling that way was horrible, but it’s great to know that people are keeping R.J’s memory alive and trying to get the word out to drive safe. For all that were involved, thank you and job well done. Always thinking of you Dave, Steve and Jeannette.

  • Anne Love

    Laura, thanks for taking action and inspiring others to take action too. We all benefit from safer streets.

  • Pingback: Today’s Headlines | Streetsblog New York City

  • Pingback: The Weekly Carnage | Streetsblog New York City