OAKDALE — Paul Katuszonek was a devoted father and husband and dedicated police officer, according to his family and friends.
"He wasn't just a police officer doing his job. Every day Paul went to work, he was out there trying to make the world a better place," said family friend Liz Harrelson. "The only thing he loved more than law enforcement is Shannon and Ava."
Shannon and Ava are Katuszonek's wife and daughter. He also is survived by his parents and a brother and sister.
Katuszonek, an Oakdale Police Department officer, died Thursday afternoon when a big-rig truck slammed into the back of his Honda just after he had stopped for Caltrans worker Brian Smith in a construction zone on Highway 132 about a mile east of Faust Road.
Modesto resident Smith, 51, suffered severe injuries in the crash. He was airlifted to a hospital but was alert and talking Thursday night and was in stable condition Friday, said California Highway Patrol officer Eric Parsons.
Just before the crash, Katuszonek had dropped off 16-month-old Eva at his mother-in-law's house on Faust Road because he was to start his patrol shift Thursday evening and Shannon had night classes to earn her teaching credential.
Oakdale Police Chief Lester Jenkins said the other officers on Katuszonek's shift were relieved from work Thursday night.
"It is going to take a while for everyone to work through this," he said. "It's kind of like an extended family here."
Katuszonek worked for the Oakdale police for five years. He was laid off several years ago as an officer during budget cuts, but was able to stay in the department as a community service officer for a year before being hired back as a sworn officer, Jenkins said.
The temporary demotion was the least of Katuszonek's struggles in the past few years.
The week before Christmas 2011, he was diagnosed with testicular cancer, Harrelson said.
Katuszonek had to take a leave of absence from work to undergo chemotherapy.
"Paul was truly a child at heart, and always looking to make people laugh," Harrelson said. "Even during his aggressive chemotherapy treatments and fight with cancer, Paul's smile never faded."
He returned to work in August after a negative test for the disease.
Katuszonek had another test scheduled next week, which if also negative would have signaled the green light for he and Shannon to try for a second child, said Shannon's cousin Jennifer Thissen.
"He just survived cancer and now he has been taken from us in a blink of an eye from something totally unrelated," she said.
The cause of the crash remains under investigation, but Parsons said the driver of the big rig did not appear to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol, and no cell phone was found at the scene. Officers are trying to determine whether speed was a factor.
For now, Katuszonek's family is planning his funeral and taking the time to celebrate his life.
Friday, Harrelson reflected on the officer's knack for quoting movies, his love for the rock band Metallica and the expressive way he read children's stories.
Flags were flown at half-staff in Oakdale on Thursday and officers wore black mourning bands over their badges in memory of the officer Jenkins called "very outgoing and gregarious."
"He had a lot of energy and he poured that energy into his job. He was always out there looking for bad guys, trying to make a difference."
Bee staff writer Erin Tracy can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2366. Follow her on Twitter @ModestoBeeCrime.