Son's death set Urbana couple on education campaign

Son's death set Urbana couple on education campaign

URBANA – A grade school teacher for many years, Gloria Wilhelm has continued her mission of educating, in a different way, for the past year.

Her message is clear and concise: "Drive now, talk later. It only takes a second to cause an eternal heartbreak."

On Sept. 8, 2006, her son Matt Wilhelm, 25, died from brain injuries inflicted when a distracted driver struck him six days earlier as he rode his bike on Illinois 130 on the east side of Urbana. He was wearing a helmet.

"It's probably been the longest year of my life, but Chuck and I are flabbergasted by the people we've met all over. People have been really wonderful," said Wilhelm, who has three other children and recently became a grandmother. "I never wanted to be at the center of attention. It just kind of happened."

The Wilhelms, formerly of Champaign, have channeled their grief into trying to draw attention to the problem of distracted driving nationwide. Besides talking to media in the Champaign-Urbana area, they've appeared on Chicago and New York television news in response to fatal crashes in those areas caused by distracted drivers.

She said a crew from the NBC Nightly News spent 3 1/2 hours interviewing them at their Bourbonnais home earlier this year but the producers told them their story would be saved "for the next bad accident."

"Isn't that sad?" said Wilhelm, who has also lobbied legislators in Illinois to create legislation with appropriate penalties for distracted driving and approached the Urbana and Champaign city councils to consider banning the use of cell phones by drivers.

Jennifer Stark, then 19, of Urbana, was downloading ring tones to her cell phone as she drove. Her inattention to the road caused her to veer so far to the right that she struck Mr. Wilhelm from behind.

She pleaded guilty to improper lane usage and received the maximum sentence allowed under the law: a $1,000 fine and six months of conditional discharge.

The Wilhelms are aware that changing laws is not so simple, no matter how good the reason.

"We want for people to change their attitude and behavior voluntarily," she said.

Toward that end, they've also had posters printed that will appear on C-U Mass Transit District buses with Matt's picture and the message about driving now and talking later.

And on Saturday, they'll host a memorial bike ride to promote safety awareness and to celebrate the life of their talented son, a University of Illinois graduate who was working as an engineer at Caterpillar in Peoria at the time of his death.

The ride begins at 9 a.m. at the Meadowbrook Park Pavilion, accessible off South Race Street in Urbana.

"It's a short, easy bike ride. We are working with the Prairie Cycle Club. They've tested the route. It's very easy, very safe," Gloria Wilhelm said, adding she took into account that Saturday is a UI home football game. The game doesn't start until 6 p.m. and the bike route is through parts of campus and residential areas of Urbana, she said.

She's also gotten donations of food and bright green T-shirts for the first 50 riders who show up. There is no entry fee, and even those who don't want to ride are welcome, she said.

The Wilhelms will be present and are willing to spread their safety message to anyone willing to listen.

"We're trying to be strong. I feel like every day is a choice. The day is going to go on without me. I can do something or I can stay in my house. And I can't do that," she said.

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