Image: Jigme Norbu
Gary Collins  /  AP
Jigme Norbu takes a picture with Damian Collins in Palm Bay, Fla., on Monday. Norbu, 45, a nephew of the Dalai Lama, was struck and killed by an SUV hours later as he walked along a Florida highway.
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updated 2/15/2011 5:33:37 PM ET 2011-02-15T22:33:37

The Dalai Lama's nephew was smiling, radiating energy as he tackled the first leg of a 300-mile walk to promote Tibet's independence from China. He insisted on finishing the last two miles on his own, even as darkness fell.

"For the cause," Jigme K. Norbu said, as he had on so many similar journeys before.

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Norbu was alone on a dark coastal highway Monday when he was struck and killed by an SUV. He was headed south in the same direction as traffic, following a white line along the side of the road, according to the Highway Patrol. The impact crumpled the vehicle's hood and shattered the front windshield.

Authorities said it appeared to be an accident and the driver, 31-year-old Keith R. O'Dell of Palm Coast, swerved but couldn't avoid Norbu. The Highway Patrol was still investigating, but didn't expect any charges. O'Dell and his 5-year-old son were not hurt.

Norbu, 45, had completed at least 21 walks and bike rides, logging more than 7,800 miles in the U.S. and overseas to support freedom for Tibet and highlight the suffering of its people. He completed his most recent 300-mile trek in December in Taiwan.

He lived in Bloomington, Ind., where his father had been a professor at Indiana University and he owned a restaurant that served Tibetan and Indian cuisine.

He had set out Monday with a group of friends, but insisted he would continue on his own after one of his companions tired and they decided to take a van to a restaurant. Norbu planned to meet them there.

About an hour before the accident, Norbu met a Florida couple, Gary and Damian Drum Collins, who had heard about his jaunt through town.

"He was smiling and happy. He had as much positive energy as you could imagine," Gary Collins said.

His wife took a picture with Norbu, who was wearing running shoes, a dark pullover and a white sandwich board-like sign that said, "Walk For Tibet Florida."

The couple was troubled by the fading sunlight and urged Norbu to stay at their place for the night. He was already behind schedule, they said, and agreed to change his plans.

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"It was becoming dusk. We were worried and we were concerned he wasn't going to have daylight," Gary Collins said.

They suggested Norbu stay inside their condominium, about three miles from their Hammock Wine & Cheese Shoppe, but he wanted to spend the night under the stars.

So the Collinses made preparations for Norbu and his group to spend the night outside the cheese shop. They left a towel, bar of soap, three bottles of coconut juice, a can of stuffed grape leaves and crackers on a table outside. The back door was also unlocked so the travelers could shower and use the restroom.

A note for the group read: "Hi! Please make yourselves at home. It is an honor to have you here."

Norbu was killed just a quarter of a mile from the shop. On Tuesday, a vase with seven roses marked the accident site on the side of the two-lane State Highway A1A, where the speed limit is 55 mph and there are no traffic lights.

A woman who identified herself as the mother of the SUV driver said her son didn't want to talk to the media.

"What more is there to say? He was wearing dark clothes. It was an unfortunate accident. He hasn't been charged. That's all we're going to say," said the woman, who would not give her name.

A dishwasher at a nearby restaurant was killed in September along the same stretch of road where Norbu died.

"It is such a sad thing," Damian Collins said. "I was honored to see him. I said, 'I'm sorry to stop you,' but he said he didn't mind because he wanted to raise awareness for his cause."

Norbu, the son of the Dalai Lama's late brother, Taktser Rinpoche, had done several other similar walks, including a 900-mile trek in 2009 from Indiana to New York.

After that four-week journey, his feet were full of painful blisters. He had lost nails and the feeling in one toe.

"But I feel energized, because the cause itself energizes me," Norbu told AP then, after emerging from New Jersey through the Lincoln Tunnel.

That walk marked the 50th anniversary of the failed Tibetan rebellion against Chinese rule that resulted in the exile of his uncle, who is Tibet's top spiritual leader.

Thupten Anyetsang, owner of Anyetsang's Little Tibet Restaurant in Bloomington, Ind., said he once joined Norbu's father on a 60-mile walk between Indianapolis and Bloomington to promote awareness of Tibet. He said the hazards posed by passing cars were evident.

"There can be dangers, especially when you're walking on the highway or rural roads," he said.

Norbu's late father was a high lama who was abbot of a monastery when the Chinese invaded. The brothers fled into exile following the 1959 uprising.

Rinpoche, who died in September 2008 at 86, was a professor of Tibetan studies at Indiana University in Bloomington while serving as the Dalai Lama's U.S. representative.

David Colman, whose son has an arts store near Norbu's restaurant, said he had shown some wild behavior during his youth but had come into his own in recent years and embraced the Tibetan political movement.

"He was maturing. Jigme was growing into being a full-fledged figurehead for Tibet," Colman said. "It's really tragic that this happened just as he was hitting his prime as the nephew of the Dalai Lama."

In northern India, officials at the Dalai Lama's office in Dharmsala could not immediately be reached and the Tibetan government-in-exile had not commented as of late Tuesday.

China claims Tibet as part of its territory, but many Tibetans say Chinese rule deprives them of religious freedom. Beijing accuses the Dalai Lama of pushing for Tibetan autonomy and fomenting anti-Chinese protests.

Norbu talked about his relationship with his uncle in an interview with the Chicago Tribune published in 1995.

"It's hard sometimes," Norbu told the newspaper. "I don't get next to him that often. I can't just hug him or anything like that. You don't do things like that. Sure I have an audience with him. Sure I see him. I respect him to the point where if I'm in India I don't go see him every day. He's got more important things to do. He's got 6 million Tibetans to worry about."

The Dalai Lama has visited Bloomington several times. The city about 50 miles southwest of Indianapolis is home to the Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center and Kumbum Chamtse Ling Temple.

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Arjia Rinpoche, the center's director, said they would hold a prayer service Tuesday night.

"We deeply regret the passing of Jigme Norbu and appreciate his work to help Tibet and the Tibetan people," Rinpoche said in a statement.

Associated Press writers Freida Frisaro in Miami and Rick Callahan in Bloomington contributed to this report.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: The Dalai Lama

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  1. Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, as a young child. He was born into a prosperous farming family in Tibet in 1935. He was enthroned as the leader of Tibet in 1950 at the age of 15 and also assumed the role of Tibetan Buddhism's spiritual leader. After the collapse of the Tibetan resistance movement in 1959, he fled to India. (Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. The Dalai Lama and Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in New Delhi in 1961, where they discussed the plight of Tibetans who crossed the border into India during the Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule. When the Tibetan resistance collapsed in 1959, the Dalai Lama fled into exile in India. China has ruled Tibet since then. (Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Pope John Paul II meets with the Dalai Lama at Vatican City in November 2003. He has met with many religious leaders over the years to promote religious dialogue. In 1989, he won the Nobel Peace Prize. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. The Dalai Lama poses with his wax image at Madame Tussaud's in 1993 in London. He brought a pair of his own glasses for the statue. (Gerry Penny / AFP-Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. The Dalai Lama jokes with New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani before an audience of 3,000 at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York in 1997. (Adam Nadel / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. The Dalai Lama speaks to an audience 40,000-strong at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington in July 2000. (Khue Bui / AFP-Getty Images ) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. President George W. Bush welcomes the Dalai Lama to the White House in 2001. (The White House via AFP - Getty) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. The Dalai Lama pats a koala held by Bindi Irwin at the Australia Zoo during a tour titled "Open Arms -- Embracing Kindness" in Beerwah in June 2007. (Greg White / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. A monk stands in front of Potala Palace in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, in 2004. Before his exile, the palace was the winter home of the Dalai Lama. (Peter Parks / AFP-Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. The Dalai Lama presents actor Richard Gere with a traditional Tibetan ceremonial scarf during the International Campaign for Tibet 2009 Light of Truth Award in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 7, 2009. (Susan Walsh / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Framed by the Tibetan flag, the Dalai Lama speaks to members of the Tibetan community on Oct. 11, 2007, in New York City. (Mary Altaffer / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. The Dalai Lama speaks with spiritual guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar during the launch ceremony of Global Foundation for Civilizational Harmony in New Delhi on Jan. 22, 2008. The organization aims to build a global civilization of peace, harmony and mutual enrichment. (Vijay Mathur / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. The Dalai Lama addresses a press conference in New Delhi, on March 29, 2008. He discussed the Chinese government policy of "demographic aggression." (Manish Swarup / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Pro-Tibetan protesters hold candles as they stand next to a poster of the Dalai Lama during a rally in San Francisco on April 8, 2008. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. The exiled spiritual leader playfully touches fists with musician Dave Matthews after a panel discussion at Seattle's Key Arena on April 11, 2008. (Marcus Donner / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Devotees watch the Tibetan spiritual leader give religious teachings at the Tsuglakhang temple in Dharmsala, India, on Sept. 30, 2008. (Ashwini Bhatia / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Exiled Tibetan spiritual leader Dalai Lama gives a speech at the EU Parliament in Brussels on December 4, 2008. China warned that day that multi-billion-dollar trade ties with France could be affected by President Nicolas Sarkozy's planned meeting with the Dalai Lama. (Eric Vidal / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Nobel Peace Prize winner and former Polish President Lech Walesa, right, and fellow laureates the Dalai Lama, left, and Adolfo Perez Esquivel, center, are seen in Gdansk, Poland, on Dec. 5, 2008. Walesa was marking the 25th anniversary of his Nobel Peace Prize win. (Czarek Sokolowski / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. The Dalai Lama receives an honorary doctorate at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland, on December 8, 2008. He expressed admiration for the nation's 1980s non-violent struggle against its now defunct communist regime. (Pawel Ulatowski / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. The Dalai Lama prays before inaugurating the installation of a hand-carved 2.5 meter-high stone statue of Lord Buddha in the compound of the Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies in the northern Indian city of Sarnath on Jan. 9, 2009. (Abhishek Madhukar / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. The Dalai Lama smiles as he is flanked by Rome's Mayor Gianni Alemanno, left, and his wife Isabella, right, after being made an honorary citizen of the Italian city on Feb. 9, 2009. (Alessandro Bianchi / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. The Dalai Lama greets reporters as he arrives for a press conference at the main temple in Dharamsala, India, on March 10, 2009. In a speech marking the 50th anniversary of the Tibetan uprising, the Dalai Lama said he would continue to pursue the "middle path" approach despite China's crackdown on Tibetans. (Harish Tyagi / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. The Dalai Lama speaks to reporters outside the White House in Washington on Feb. 18, 2010, following a meeting with President Barack Obama. Every U.S. president for the last two decades has met with the Dailai Lama, including George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. (J. Scott Applewhite / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. The Dalai Lama announced that he will pass the reins of political power to the elected prime minister of the self-proclaimed on Thursday, March 10, 2011. Tibetan government in exile hoping to prevent a political vacuum after his death and ensure an effective response to Chinese crackdowns and Beijing's increasingly effective use of diplomatic pressure. Dalai Lama made a point of saying he wasn't retiring, and his global status and reputation ensure that he will continue to play a major role in Tibetan affairs. (David Stephenson / Zuma Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. The Dalai Lama holds a forty-nine days memorial service for victims of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami at the Gokokuji temple in Tokyo on Friday, April 29, 2011. The 75-year-old monk, on his way to the US, offered prayers and messages to a nation in deep sorrow after the 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami on March 11 that has plunged Japan into its worst post-War crisis. (Kim Kyung-hoon / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
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