In 59 years of marriage, Yvonne and Johnny Palka had done so much together.
The Maple Grove couple attended the same college, shared professions in academia, traveled the world, raised a family and embraced the outdoors on hikes and kayaking trips.
“There was a quality of joyfulness that was flowering in recent times, really just in the past six months to a year,” Johnny Palka said Wednesday. “We had times when we would just have to look at each other and we’d start to giggle.”
That unspoken and intimate connection evaporated in an instant when the Palkas stepped off a downtown Minneapolis curb one evening last month and were struck by a car.
Yvonne Palka, 81, was knocked to the pavement with injuries too numerous and severe for her to survive. She died on Nov. 30 at HCMC, three weeks after they were struck. Johnny Palka, 80, escaped with relatively minor injuries.
Yvonne Palka’s traffic-related death is among 19 suffered by pedestrians in Minnesota just since Oct. 5 and the 46th so far this year, roughly eight more than the annual average for the previous 15 years, according to preliminary data from the state Department of Public Safety (DPS).
In only one year dating back to 2004 have there been more — 60 in 2016 — and a new year is still nearly three weeks away.
Johnny Palka said he and his wife were waiting at the top of a T-intersection to cross 2nd Street and head down 5th Avenue toward a Warehouse District restaurant to meet two other couples before attending a play that evening.
“We were very cautious,” he recalled, noting the lack of crosswalk markings and traffic lights. “We stopped, looked up and down and up and down [for traffic.] As we were crossing, a car pulled out from 5th and made a left turn and hit us both.”
Johnny Palka said he was sideswiped but quickly got to his feet with relatively minor injuries. Yvonne Palka, however, was on the pavement “and surrounded by eight or so people,” he said. “One of them was a nurse, and he sort of took charge and made sure she didn’t get moved.”
Police and fire personnel quickly arrived and took over before she was taken to HCMC. Johnny Palka spoke with the driver and described her as appearing to be in her 20s and “totally distraught.”
He recalled her saying she was distracted by the lights of an oncoming car.
“I’ve been trying to figure out where that car might have been,” he said.
Police have declined to identify the driver, saying their investigation into the crash continues, but they confirmed she was not impaired by alcohol or drugs.
The place where the Palkas were crossing offered them the right of way, even though the crosswalk is not marked. However, the DPS says, that right is not absolute. For example, pedestrians must not start crossing when it’s impossible for a vehicle to stop in time.
According to the DPS, pedestrians and bicyclists make up nearly 12% of all traffic fatalities each year, with 69% of them occurring in urban areas.
The agency said drivers need to be on the lookout for pedestrians, stop for them at all intersections and not pass other vehicles that have stopped to allow someone to cross.
Pedestrians can do their part, the DPS points out, by obeying traffic signals and not crossing midblock, making eye contact with drivers and being particularly mindful when crossing especially wide streets. According to the DPS, about 19% of pedestrians killed were not crossing properly.
Yvonne Palka lived a lifetime of achievement as an academic, illustration artist and author who was on the verge of having another book published. After college, she did research at Baylor University Medical School in Houston, and taught at the University of Washington and then Antioch University in the Seattle area. The Palkas also had two stints living and working in India, and they were married there during that first extended visit.
Their two daughters married, and the Palkas were splitting time starting about 10 years ago as retirees between Washington state and Minnesota in order to be closer to one daughter’s family in Maple Grove and another in Kenosha, Wis. Two or so years ago, they put down their roots in Minnesota and moved into a duplex near their Minnesota daughter’s family.
Yvonne Palka kept busy with her writing focused on dragons, artwork, spiritual yoga, exploring the outdoors and being a grandmother. At the time of her death, Palka was working on “Sami the Snow Dragon.”
Rachel Lochtefeld, who lives in Kenosha, said in her mother’s obituary that [Yvonne’s] “loved ones treasure memories of backpacking, grazing on huckleberries, singing, meditating, reading and telling stories.”
Johnny Palka said “there was something about the way Yvonne expressed her love of other people and the love of what she was doing. The sense that life was joyful.”