Media cameras and reporters awaited Rick Stephens ’71/86 and Paul Harrison ’71 as they pedaled to the completion of their nearly 960-mile trip from Wichita to Winnipeg, Manitoba, in May.
Finishing the nine-day cycling trip was satisfying, but, Stephens and Harrison say, the truly special moments of the trip came when people they encountered along the way asked why two guys in their 60s were undertaking such a challenging feat.
The two cyclists — who’ve been friends since elementary school —answered the question by taking the opportunity to talk about a man who has played important roles in both of their lives.
They explained, as the purple T-shirts they wore on the trip indicated, that they were on “A Ride for Herb,” a fundraising venture for the Alzheimer’s Association.
By mid-June, the pair had raised more than $12,000, surpassing their original goal of $10,000.
That includes the $5 from a woman in a Nebraska convenience store, another $5 from a man outside a café in Breckenridge, Min., and the $20 a man in Grand Forks, N.D., gave them when they stopped to ask for directions. The man later donated another $100 online.
In 2010, Harrison’s father Herbert “Herb” P. Harrison fs ’50 was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, a disease that affects more than 5 million Americans.
Looking back, Harrison says, his dad, who played in the tailback position on the University of Wichita’s Raisin Bowl (Jan. 1, 1948) and Camellia Bowl (Dec. 30, 1948) football teams, had shown symptoms well before his diagnosis.
He became short with the grandkids, fumbled to find words and argued about unimportant things — the route taken on the annual Harrison family fly-fishing trip to Colorado, for example.
Such behavior was most uncharacteristic of the man who had spent a career successfully managing a pharmacy business and construction sites; raising seven children, alongside his wife, Billy; and giving back to their community by serving on the Andover, Kan., school board, among many other commitments and activities.
“He was such a great guy, real salt-of-the-earth kind of guy,” says Stephens, a retired school administrator who holds degrees in sociology and secondary education from Wichita State.
Herb moved to a care facility in 2015 from the Harrison family’s farm and Angus cattle ranch not far from Howard, Kan.
The move was made after caring for him became too difficult for his wife. Both are 89.
That’s when Stephens suggested doing a bike ride in Herb’s honor. For Stephens, bike riding has become both a therapeutic outlet and a way to raise awareness for causes.
He took up cycling when running became too difficult on his joints, hampered by the lingering effects of injuries he suffered in the 1970 plane crash that killed many of his fellow starters on the Shocker football team.
Over the past decade, he’s undertaken other long-distance bike rides, a number of them to the site of the plane crash in Colorado for the purpose of raising funds for the Memorial ’70 Scholarship Fund at Wichita State — a fund established to provide money for college for those directly affected by the tragedy.
“When Rick said he wanted to do this for my dad, I said, ‘I need to go,’” says Harrison, who earned a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences at WSU and is a trauma surgeon with Kansas Surgical Consultants in Wichita.
The pair have taken trips together over the years — a raft trip down the Yukon River, a trip to Prague to celebrate Stephens and his wife’s anniversary among them — but never a bike trip.
Knowing Harrison’s bike had been hanging on a rack in his garage since the 1980s, Stephens offered some friendly advice: “I told him you might want to upgrade,” he says, smiling.
Harrison’s brother, C. Reed ’71, who lives in Andover, Kan., and is a veterinarian at a clinic in Rose Hill, had planned to join them on the trip, but was injured in a bike crash prior to the May 15 trip sendoff, which took place at Jabara Airport in northeast Wichita.
For Harrison, it meant a lot to do this trip with his childhood friend on behalf of his dad: “It was a physical hardship, but it is nothing compared to what my mom and dad, and other families, are going through with this disease.”