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Easy Rider | Kitsap Week
Bob Lee says he hasn’t met a bad person in more than 10,000 miles.
“I think the more we can practice doing random acts [of kindness], the richer our lives will be and the better the world will be,” Lee said on the first blustery day in September.
Lee recently began his third bike ride for charity, called Ride for 3 Reasons, passing through the north end of Kitsap on his way south to Mexico.
Ride for 3 Reasons raises money for the American Cancer Society, Les Turner ALS Foundation and National Hospice Organization, and Lee hopes to hit $1 million raised.
The 70-year-old Illinois man will bike the nearly 1,500 miles in about seven weeks, completing 12,000 total miles around the perimeter of the U.S. in 11 years. He started Sept. 5 in Vancouver, B.C., reaching Poulsbo Sept. 9.
“If we all asked what could we do, it’s going to make a difference,” Lee said, calling the Rides for 3 Reasons the “best thing to happen in my life.”
At age 57, Lee was inspired to not only contribute to charity, but to start his own. He said he remembers watching the Ted Koppel interview with Morrie Schwartz, a professor dying of ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Lee read the book, “Tuesdays with Morrie,” listened to it on tape, watched the movie and the play. Schwartz often commented to Mitch Albom — his student and author of “Tuesdays” — that there is more to life than a career.
“That really spoke to me. I was a workaholic at the time,” Lee said. He worked for International Harvester in Illinois for years, and ran a few small businesses. “[Schwartz’s] message about giving back, paying back, hit a chord.”
Lee became involved in the Les Turner ALS Foundation, and he heard of another man who was biking the perimeter of the U.S. for ALS research and awareness. When he heard a friend of his had been diagnosed with ALS — a friend to whom he had just loaned “Tuesdays with Morrie” — something clicked.
“That could be me, that could be you,” Lee said. “If I hadn’t been connected to that book, I might have thought, ‘Oh, that’s too bad,’ and go on with life. But, because I did know what a dreadful disease it is, I thought, ‘What could I do?’ ”
By biking around the country, he hopes to connect people with his message.
“This isn’t about a bike ride, it’s about the three reasons. The bike is just a tool,” Lee said. “I’m not a bike rider, I’m a peddler, and I’m peddling a message … There are many people that can’t [ride]. I can be their arms and legs and voice.”
At age 59, Lee rode his bike the first leg from San Diego to St. Augustine, Fla., raising $86,000 for ALS and the National Hospice Organization (his mother was cared for by a hospice).
In the beginning, it was awkward asking people for money, Lee said. There was no Facebook, no blog, no way to update his donors while on the road. As a way to reach more donors and spread his message, Lee has been keeping up with technology — which keeps him feeling young, he said — and he started blogging during his second ride in 2007.
Between his first and second ride, Lee was diagnosed with colon cancer, in 2003. Caught early and treated with surgery, Lee didn't have to go through chemotherapy, and added the third reason to his charitable bike ride. His wife, Anne, was diagnosed with breast cancer a few years ago, and is also a survivor.
The ride’s message is multigenerational, he said. His home community of Barrington, Ill. is very supportive — Lee has received donations from children who sacrifice birthday presents to support Ride for 3 Reasons. Lee recently met a young couple on Whidbey Island, neighbors of the friends he was staying with, who planned to donate to charity in lieu of wedding gifts and chose Lee’s charity after meeting him.
“We are truly grateful for Bob Lee’s unwavering dedication to raising funds for ALS research and to educating people about the disease,” said Wendy Abrams, executive director of the Les Turner ALS Foundation. “We’re inspired by his connections to the ALS community in the Chicago area as well as along the route of the Ride for 3 Reasons. He’s an outstanding leader who shares enthusiasm with everyone he meets, and we wish him the best of luck as he cycles along the West coast.”
By now, Lee’s reputation has preceded him. Lee has 25 “paysetters,” individuals who pledged a total of $610,000 in a grant-like fund. For every $1 donation from the public, $2 are released from the paysetter fund. As of Sept. 11, $510,378.99 has been raised, $170,000 of that from general donations. Lee covers the expenses of the ride himself, so 100 percent of the donations go to the three charities, he said.
Lee began fundraising two years ago, but was planning the third ride since the completion of the second. In 2007, Lee biked from Florida to Bar Harbor, Maine, then flew to Bellingham and biked from Washington state back to Maine, “to have the wind at my back.”
“Physically I haven’t trained enough, but there’s a lot of on-the-job training,” Lee said. “You learn after going uphill, you spend your time thinking about ‘What don’t I need.’ ”
Lee bikes by himself, with the assistance of GPS, and with his computer, a toothbrush and some clothes strapped to his bike. But he says he’s not alone; he feels his family and supporters with every push of the pedal.
“[Biking] is a type of yoga, [a way] of clearing your head, getting the jitter out of your head,” he said.
Currently on his second trip in Washington, Lee said he sees a lot of pride here, residents keeping the roads clean of litter and potholes. He calls the beauty of the U.S. “phenomenal.”
“We’re just fortunate to live in a free country that we can do this,” he said. Lee has met plenty of other bikers, “people just out following their dreams and seeing the world.”
Lee said he isn’t sure if he’ll plan another bike ride — “Let’s get through this one.” But he said he’s committed to continuing with charity work, and maybe if he stays in good health, we might see him on the road again.
“Maybe people won’t remember Bob for businesses I’ve ran, but I think they’ll remember an old man on a bike, trying to encourage other people to do some good.”
To follow Bob, visit 3reasons.org where he posts a blog and photos almost daily.