Leg amputated, at 93 she takes on a street crossing

Agnes Chesko talks about the 2012 accident that cost her her right leg. She is waging a legal fight to get the West Chester crosswalk where she was hit made safer. At 83, she had started a new job in the courthouse.
Agnes Chesko talks about the 2012 accident that cost her her right leg. She is waging a legal fight to get the West Chester crosswalk where she was hit made safer. At 83, she had started a new job in the courthouse. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 15, 2014

In a dozen black felt shadowboxes hung on the pale-blue walls of her West Chester dining room, Agnes Chesko displays hundreds of intricate spoons. One with a slim, spiral stem and a postage-stamp top. One with an Indian chief, his feathers trailing down the handle. One with the vivid image of a grand cathedral laid in the oval indent.

They were collected during almost a century of world travels that ended in December 2012 in the most unlikely way.

Chesko - who for decades had been active in Chester County politics, was an advocate for the disabled, and at age 92 continued to work and travel - was leaving her part-time courthouse job when she was struck by a car as she crossed Market Street in West Chester. Months of hospitalization and a stream of infections followed.

Last fall, doctors amputated her right leg.

Now Chesko - whose independence always belied her age, as she took up a new career when her peers were well into retirement, received a speeding ticket or two in her Pontiac Firebird convertible during her 80s, and was pushed up a mountain in Uganda at age 90 to see a silverback gorilla at the top - must ask for help.

"For an independent person, needing so much help is not very pleasant," she said Thursday, glancing down at a yellow ledger on her lap that her daughter had handed to her a moment before.

Everything, Chesko said, seems to be just an inch beyond her grasp.

Still, complaining is not in her character, and rather than focusing on all she can no longer do, Chesko has one clear goal: seeing changes made to the crosswalk where she was hit.

In a lawsuit filed last month, Chesko claims the state Department of Transportation, the Borough of West Chester, and the state knew the mid-block crosswalk on a one-way street was a hazard and negligently designed inadequate signs and signals. A borough official declined comment on the claim, and the state has not yet filed a response to the lawsuit.

Also named as defendants are Karen Johnson, the Downingtown woman who was driving the car, and her husband, Barry. Neither could be reached for comment.

Chesko is seeking compensation for, among other things, more $500,000 in medical expenses, according to the suit.

Some of the changes she says she would like to see at the crosswalk are already in the works.

County spokeswoman Rebecca Brain said the commissioners conducted a traffic study after Chesko's accident that showed 89 percent of drivers complied with the signals and yielded to pedestrians.

The commissioners have approved additional warnings, including more LED lights, a sign prompting pedestrians to wait for vehicles to stop, and alerts at the intersection before the crosswalk.

Brain said those changes are expected to be complete in June. Chesko said she was "determined not to let go" until the improvements are made.

"I intend to stick around," she said, raising her eyes to the ceiling. "I've warned God."

New challenges

The persistence she has shown throughout her life suggests she means it. Her 93 years have been filled with new challenges at unconventional times.

When West Chester schools had no programs for her intellectually disabled son, Bobby, she left him in the superintendent's office and hid in the bushes outside. Her tenacity in seeking services led to the development of the district's first special-education class, held in the basement of a church. She and other parents went on to be founding members of Arc of Chester County, a disability-resource nonprofit.

When, at 89, Chesko had a newfound desire to tickle the ivories, she bought a piano and signed up for classes. At her first recital, her much younger peers played classical songs. She picked "Take Me Out to the Ball Game."

And when Judge John Hall, a friend she had met through the local Republican committee, asked her to work as a member of his tipstaff at the court, she gladly accepted. No matter that she was 83 and hadn't the faintest idea how a courtroom operated. She perfected her bellowing "All rise!" and used her connections to coordinate community service opportunities for juvenile offenders.

Adjustments continue

On the night she was hit, Chesko said, Hall had stayed late trying to settle a dispute between two siblings.

Just after 7 p.m., she entered the crosswalk when a few cars in the closest lane had stopped, Chesko said. She said a car passing through the second lane hit her just paces from the sidewalk.

"She was airborne," said her son William, a former West Chester police officer. "Everybody's wanted to show me the film. But I don't want to see it."

Since then, Chesko said, she has had more than one stay in most of the county's hospitals. Her October amputation cleared her of infection and got her off antibiotics for the first time since the crash, William Chesko said.

But the adjustments continue.

Going places now takes twice as long as before, and spontaneity, she said, is a thing of the past.

This Christmas was the first in years that she could not visit the grave of her husband, World War II veteran J. William Chesko, at Arlington National Cemetery. The small tree the family planned to bring is still on the front porch.

It was their relationship that took her to so many distant places. For years, the two would go to Dover Air Force Base with only carry-ons in hand, hopping on flights and buying clothes wherever they landed. The couple began bringing home spoons because of their size.

On a map near her kitchen, about 300 pins mark all the places she has traveled. She doesn't hesitate for a moment when asked which is her favorite.

"West Chester," she said. "When you think about it, we're close to the ocean. We're close to the mountains. We have gorgeous trees. We have a lot of activities. And it's not because I know the mayor."


tnadolny@phillynews.com

610-313-8205

@TriciaNadolny

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