“I haven’t ridden a bicycle since 3rd grade!”
was my response to my husband, Royce, after I read him a letter from ESA Headquarters that they were desperate to find an ESA couple to ride from Memphis to Los Angeles in ESA’s Million Dollar Bike Ride (the original non-ESA couple had dropped out just months before the scheduled cross-country event). He had just stated, “I’ve wanted to do something like this all my life.” As Oklahoma’s first St. Jude Chair, I had received this letter from headquarters’ Project Director, Syd Feraco. After calling my parents to see if they’d take care of our two boys, Rusty (15) and Scott Robin (2 1/2,) for 64 days, we called Syd to see if we would qualify.
We didn’t have much time to practice before leaving for Memphis. May 23, 1974 was the big day. We got a tour of the hospital, saw all the patients, and had Danny Thomas and our ESA family give us a big send-off. Royce and I we were off. We rode a donated tandem bike, something that we have never ridden in our lives! Suddenly, peddling across that big bridge from Memphis into Arkansas became very lonely!
It took 3 days of peddling to get to Little Rock where I promptly went into a bicycle shop to buy the biggest padded bike seat I could find. I wasn’t going to sit any longer on that hard, tiny seat! The clerk told me I could never go cross country on a big, padded seat. “Just watch me!”
was my reply. I bought two of them.
Our route had been laid out by ESA Headquarters so that we would make a pit stop with as many ESA chapters along the way as we could. A young man who was editor of his college newspaper was hired as our “advance man” to set up all the media when we’d arrive in towns and cities. Royce’s student drove a truck I had gotten donated that was painted with “ESA’s Million Dollar Bike Ride.”
The truck’s camper back carried a spare bike, lots of spare spokes, our water, snacks and other equipment. He drove 5 miles ahead of us, stopped and waited until we peddled up, asked if we needed anything, and then drove 5 more miles. He read lots of books that summer waiting for us!
We didn’t pedal all 64 days—some days were set aside for media appearances so we could tell the story of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and how ESA had pledged to help them.
The hospital was only 12 years old at the time—so “getting the word out” was imperative.
Most nights we had motel rooms donated, and many nights we met with ESA chapters who fed us and listened to our stories. It was wonderful meeting ESA members across the country.
By mid-June we had made it to Oklahoma and got to see our kids and my parents. We were about halfway.
July 3 was our longest day in Arizona when we pedaled 71 miles in 113 degrees
traveling from Show Low to Globe through Salt River Canyon, nicknamed “Little Grand Canyon.” The canyon had hair pin curves down what seemed like miles, and hair pin curves climbing out of the canyon for more miles. We were 13 hours on the bike that day. I became so tired I just sat by the side of the road and cried. Royce and I talked about the kids at St. Jude and how they endured sitting for hours getting chemo drips, and suddenly sitting on a bike didn’t seem so bad.
We faced a huge hill, but at the top of that hill was a sign: “Downhill next 8 miles.” I knew St. Jude Thaddeus, the patron saint of hopeless causes, was with us!
On July 24, we pedaled into Los Angeles’ Rancho Park where Danny Thomas, ESA IC President Judy Lester, and several hundred ESA members greeted us. The next day, we appeared with Danny on The Merv Griffin Show. After pedaling 2,368 miles, we knew we had helped plant a seed that would grow into the million dollars ESA had pledged to the hospital.
It’s awesome to think of the millions and millions this has become after 45 years—and I’m still pedaling for the hospital and ESA—only not from a bicycle seat!
To spread more of the ESA love, the ‘80s has a number of highlighted stories to share. Keep up with the A Glimpse in Time series and check back in two weeks for the next, heartfelt post.
Written by Billye Peterson