Rachel Speight ’06, a rising senior in Branford College, died Sunday when she was hit by a car in western Kentucky while on a cross-country bicycle trip organized by Yale students as a charity fundraiser.
According to Kentucky state police, the 21-year-old music major — known as Ramie to her friends — was traveling on U.S. 60 in Henderson County, Ky. at about 10:35 a.m. when she lost control of her bicycle, crossed over the center line and struck a car going in the other direction. Speight, who was wearing a helmet, was pronounced dead at the scene.
Speight, a Houston native, was participating in the Habitat Bike Challenge, an annual cross-country ride begun by Yale students in 1994 as a way to raise money for Habitat for Humanity, an international group dedicated to providing housing for low-income families.
According to Rachel Shipp ’05, one of the leaders of Speight’s team, the 25 riders in her group have traveled over 1,300 miles on a trip which began May 28 in New Haven and is scheduled to end in July. The group had recently left Louisville, Ky, where they had spent an “off day” visiting Yale students on the Bulldogs in the Bluegrass program centered there.
At the time of the accident, Speight was traveling on a paved, two- lane road in a group of five women who were biking single file, Shipp said. She said Speight accidentally surged forward and caught the tire of the bike ahead of her, losing control and swerving into a car traveling eastbound. Speight and her bicycle were thrown into a field by the impact of the collision, according to a report from Kentucky State Police.
Shipp said Speight’s fellow riders later told her that prior to the accident, “there were no cars for miles.” The collision was reported as an accident, and a spokeswoman for the Kentucky State Police said no further investigation was expected.
The trip, which organizers say is the largest student-run fundraiser for Habitat for Humanity in the country, requires participants to raise $4,000 prior to the trip. As participants travel across the country, they present slideshows about Habitat for Humanity and try to stimulate interest in the group, Shipp said. She said the money raised from the trip will eventually be used to pay for three or four houses that the group will build in New Haven. Although the trip is led by Yale students, only about half of the participants are from the University, with others coming from schools across the country.
But in addition to the philanthropic mission of the trip, Speight was motivated by the thrill of traveling from coast-to-coast, Shipp said.
“She really wanted to see the country,” Shipp said. “She wanted the challenge.”
Rachel’s father Howard Speight, a Houston patent attorney, said Rachel always filled her time with activity, packing one summer with work at a law firm, a Seattle opera company and language study in Germany. He said she had planned to visit Budapest this summer with a singing group after finishing the Habitat bike trip.
“What has comforted me over the last couple of days is knowing that she had a very full life,” he said. “She filled her summers to the brim… and filled every moment with something that was important to her. She lived a very full 21 years.”
At Yale, Speight filled much of her schedule with her musical pursuits. A graduate of a performing arts high school in Houston, Speight sang with the New Blue, an a cappella group, as well as the Yale Schola Cantorum. Howard Speight said Rachel had hoped to continue with graduate study in music history at a large university after graduation. He said she was interested in programs at Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Chicago, and Berkeley.
“Her ambition at the moment was to go to graduate school, and then become a music history professor,” he said, “but she was not firmly set upon any course of action. She was always a very flexible person.”
Ilya Gidalevich ’06, a close friend to Speight for the last three years, said Speight’s colorful personality and unflinching loyalty made her stand out among others.
“She was very quirky and had a very distinct sense of humor that not everyone could understand, but that her closest friends really cherished,” he said. “She was an incredibly good friend, and was always there whenever anyone needed her.”
A memorial service for Speight is scheduled at Memorial Presbyterian Church in Houston this Friday, and Yale University Chaplain Rev. Frederick Streets said another service will be held in the fall in New Haven. Although Speight’s team has stopped for a day in Kentucky to hold a private memorial for her, Shipp said the trip will go on, with participants given the option of whether to continue riding.
“The trip is so scheduled that we kind of have to keep going,” Shipp said. “[But] it’s people’s personal choice.”