THE BRONX — A Bronx high school teacher cycling across the country to raise money for affordable housing was struck and killed Thursday morning by a driver distracted by her cellphone in Oklahoma, state authorities said.
Patrick Wanninkhof, 25, who taught physics and computer science for three years at Fordham High School for the Arts as a Teach for America Fellow, was run down by Sarah Morris, 34, near the town of Canute just after 8 a.m. and pronounced dead at the scene, officials said.
Another cyclist, 22-year-old Bridget Anderson, was also struck by the car and was in stable condition, police said.
Morris told police that she was looking at her phone when she ran into the two cyclists, according to Oklahoma Highway Patrol.
Wanninkhof was inspired by his Bronx students to bike from Maine to California in order to raise money to build affordable housing through a program called Bike and Build, according to his profile on the program’s website.
“A student told me that she and her mom had been moving between relatives' houses every week after they couldn't pay rent,” Wanninkhof wrote. “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??”
Word of the fatal collision swiftly made its way to New York, devastating students and teachers at Fordham who remembered Wanninkhof as a selfless and dedicated teacher.
Francisco Diaz, 17, who just graduated from Fordham and is set to study at LaGuardia Community College, was Wanninkhof's student for three years, first in physics and then computer science, he said.
“He was quite a character — very goofy, very quirky,” Diaz said. “He’s not just my teacher. We became friends.”
Diaz recalled a class during his sophomore year in which students were acting rowdy and disrespecting Wanninkhof. They ended up making him cry that day, Diaz said, recalling it was also Wanninkhof's birthday.
“Even then it didn’t faze him. He didn’t hold a grudge against us. After... [he said], 'Alright you made me cry on my birthday... but I still love you guys even though my feelings are hurt.' It was very heartwarming,” the student said.
“At first people took it as a sign of weakness, but others saw it as, ‘Oh this guy really does care.’”
Michael Johnson Jr., the assistant principal at Fordham, said the school community was devastated by Wanninkhof's death.
“I don’t have the words to describe the impact that this man had on his students lives and even mine as a fellow educator,” Johnson said. “He was just an all-around great guy. You look at him [and] you smile.”
He said that like many new teachers, Wanninkhof initially struggled with classroom management but quickly figured out how to captivate his students.
“You walk into a class and you couldn't believe he was a third-year teacher,” Johnson recalled. “Administration liked to call him the 'Nutty Professor,' as he got his students to love science and found ways to ensure students applied science concepts learned in class to real world application."
“Every time I stepped foot into his classroom, it felt like a science room," Johnson added. "He was the kind of science teacher I wish I would have had when I was in high school.”
Others took to social media, building an online shrine to Wanninkhof.
I don't want to write a farewell to Wanninkhof because I can't accept that its actually fucking true, WHY!!! This guy, this kid because if you think about it, its all he was his shenanigans his goofiness. I dont want to say goodbye and I dont to feel sad because I want to believe that I'll see him again like in the mornings when he'd be walking to school grasping both of the straps on his bookbag. Fuck...
I can't believe you're gone. I had the pleasure of having this man as not only my teacher, but also my friend. He had an absolute genuine passion for his profession and honestly believed that his students could become as invigorated about their work as he was. Thank you for everything and I am so grateful that I got to hug you the last time I saw you. Rest In Peace, Mr. Wanninkhof. #patrickwanninkhof #rip #fhsa