After 1,300 miles of biking cross-country, Rachel Speight ’06 had become used to dumping bottles of water over her head to cool down.
It had turned into such a habit that she accidentally did the same with a glass of water one night at dinner, astonishing her fellow riders. Though drenched and surprised, Ramie, as her friends called her, laughed at the mistake.
That is how her friends and family remember her — ready to find humor in any situation, even her own foibles. But they also recall her clear alto voice and a spirit that was both compassionate and adventurous.
Although not an expert biker, Speight planned to ride from New Haven to San Francisco to raise money for Habitat for Humanity. Before she died Sunday in a cycling accident in Kentucky, Speight had raised $4,000 towards building homes for low-income families in New Haven.
“She really believed in the cause,” Brian Barnes ’06, a close friend of Speight, said. “She was doing it for charity. … [S]he died helping others.”
Speight’s compassion extended to the everyday plights of college life. Barnes said one day, stressed out studying for exams, he snapped at her while she was visiting his room. Hours later, she came back bearing a bottle of orange soda, one of Barnes’s favorite drinks.
“It’s a stupid story but I think it illustrates something about her that I’m really going to miss,” Barnes said. “She was someone who had a penchant for the details in her relationships with other people.”
A music major and skilled vocalist, Speight also shared her talents with her friends.
“I remember her telling me about different kinds of vibrato,” Abigail Deutsch ’06 said, “then demonstrating in her incredibly high, clear, lovely voice.”
Speight sang with the a cappella group New Blue and Schola Cantorum, a selective choir, after singing with the Battell chapel choir during her freshman year.
Houston attorney Howard Speight, Rachel’s father, said she planned to apply to graduate programs in music history after graduation, with the hope of becoming a professor. Her high school voice teacher, Carol Nelson, said she imagined Speight as the head of an opera company, like New York’s Metropolitan Opera.
“Music was definitely her life,” Nelson said. “She could eat music up and spit it out.”
In high school, Nelson said, Speight was a “self-starter and a go-getter” who founded an opera club that brought speakers to the school for brown-bag events and organized volunteering opportunities with a local opera company.
But her creativity went beyond music. Nelson said she has kept figurines of opera characters Speight fashioned out of Christmas ornaments as gifts for her teacher.
Rachel also had a fondness for comedy. She could quote lines from The Simpsons, Family Guy and Futurama from memory, her father said, and her own quirky jokes permeated her daily conversation.
“She was often exuberant, a giggler and a joker, always ready with a clever, unexpected comment that would get a whole table of us laughing,” her friend Abby Deutsch ’06 said.
Speight used her sense of humor to brighten tough situations. One of the slower riders on the Habitat bike trip, she made light of her difficulty by suggesting a Facebook group, “Team for a Flatter America.”
Before the ride, Speight was only a casual cyclist who enjoyed rides to East Rock to relax at Yale. On the trip, her struggle to keep going inspired others on the trip.
“To get on your bicycle was a choice, and she made that choice everyday,” said Lauren Selman, a student at the University of California-Berkeley.
While she accepted support from other bikers, Speight was known by friends and family to be loyal and sympathetic herself.
“If she were here, she would have been one of the first people to be on the front lines, calling people and supporting people,” Barnes said.
Ilya Gidalevich ’06, a close friend of Speight since freshman year, said she had become an integral part of his daily world ever since the two first bonded over a common interest in music.
“It is strange to come to terms with losing a person after you have spent so much time with them, and see them many times a day,” he said. “Now there will be a void there, in many respects. I’ll miss seeing her brush her teeth in the morning, getting to speak to her. We have all lost a very good friend.”