School mourns student, aide
By ROBERT FARLEY
© St. Petersburg Times, published November 3, 2000
EAST LAKE -- A popular and bubbly teacher's aide. A high school junior with a promising future.
The deaths of Sharon R. Kulak, 46, and Mark Conklin, 17, were doubly tragic for East Lake High School.
Kulak, who worked as a teacher's aide in the Exceptional Student Education program at East Lake, was on her way home from work driving west on Keystone Road. Conklin, an East Lake junior, was headed east with a childhood friend in the passenger seat.
According to the Florida Highway Patrol, Conklin's car veered into Kulak's lane. In an instant, the two cars collided.
Mrs. Kulak, 46, of Tarpon Springs was pronounced dead at the scene by paramedics. Conklin, 17, of Tarpon Springs, died later at Helen Ellis Memorial Hospital in Tarpon Springs. Conklin's friend was recovering Thursday at Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg.
News of the two deaths sent a wave of shock and grief through the school Thursday.
Principal Rick Misenti said students and teachers alike were hit hard by the news. Grief crisis counselors met with a number of students and teachers throughout the day.
Misenti described Conklin as a student with purpose and direction.
"He was a good student who was really moving forward with his life," Misenti said. "We enjoyed having him at our school."
Guidance counselor Elthea Childress said Conklin was taking college prep classes and planned to attend St. Petersburg Junior College.
Although not involved in many extracurricular activities, she said, he was active in the youth group at his church, First Christian Church of Tarpon Springs.
"It's just a very difficult situation to hear about because he's so young," Childress said.
Mark's father, Bill Conklin, called his son a gift from God.
"We loved our son more than you'd ever know," he said. "It hurts more than you could imagine."
Conklin noted that his son was an organ donor, and his eyes were donated so that someone else could see.
"My heart goes out to the other family," he added.
Mrs. Kulak worked one-on-one with students and teachers as part of the Exceptional Student Education program for nearly three years.
"She was a wonderful person," Misenti said.
Judy Mitchell, a guidance secretary, said Mrs. Kulak was well-liked by her peers.
"Everyone describes her the same way, a happy, bubbly personality," Mitchell said.
"There was never down time with her," she said. "She always found something to do."
Mitchell said Mrs. Kulak and her husband, Michael, and daughter, Amy, 18, moved to Florida from northern New Jersey several years ago.
"She was a good friend to all of us," Mitchell said.
"It has been a tough year for us," said Misenti, noting that math teacher Lynn Ann Albertini, 49, died in September.
Wednesday's accident happened just before 3 p.m. on Keystone Road at Old East Lake Road.
The Florida Highway Patrol is still investigating the accident. Sgt. Paul Fruik said investigators did not know why Conklin's car veered into the oncoming lane.
A passenger in Conklin's car, Thomas Paul Jr., 16, of Palm Harbor, a junior at East Lake, was flown by helicopter to Bayfront Medical Center. Paul's father, Thomas Paul Sr., said his son was in serious but not life-threatening condition Thursday night. Thomas Jr. suffered compressed vertebrae, a bruised liver and lots of cuts and bruises, Paul said.
"Definitely, the air bag and seat belt saved his life," Paul said. "He is a lucky boy."
The highway patrol said Conklin was not wearing a seat belt, but Mrs. Kulak was.
Paul said his son and Mark Conklin, friends since they were 3 years old, were heading back to his house on Keystone Road. Though his son was lucid Thursday, Paul said Thomas Jr. has no recollection of the accident.
Terry Lacerte of New Port Richey was driving just behind Mrs. Kulak's car on Wednesday afternoon. Lacerte said the Intrepid veered into the eastbound lane and collided straight on with Mrs. Kulak's car. The rear ends of the cars lifted into the air, twisted and fell back down, he said. A cloud of dust filled the air.
"It was like a blur," Lacerte said. "It was very upsetting.
"Just a split second and your whole life changes," he said.
- Staff writer Robert Farley can be reached at (727) 445-4185 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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