It’s been a week since the over 300-mile “Split the Mitt” bike ride for Less Cancer, which left from the historic Fisher Building in Detroit, designed by Albert Kahn. In the early morning hours before the ride started, my daughter Maeve, intern Austin and I make our way over to the starting line. I stop to take it in while both Maeve and Austin are exceptional at their jobs taking care of details, armed with cell phones, laptops and communicating with more people than anyone should have to before they are fully awake. They, however, hit the ground running brains sparking on fast forward addressing any possible hitch coming around the corner.
As I enter the building, my mind wanders back in time over 50 years, when I remember coming to the Fisher Building with my namesake and grandfather, Bill Ulrich. I remember, as a small child, walking with the man with the brimmed hat and big cigar through the front lobby of marble, splashed in gilt and bronze, to lunch in his stomping grounds of the Recess Club. Everyone said hello to him, from the cigar stand vendor to the elevator operator. Not all the details are clear, but the memories of the smell of cigar smoke, the sound my shoes on the marble as if walking on glass, are indelible.
Like myself, the legacy I received and can pass on to my kids is not an inheritance but rather service, something I have felt a pull towards since early childhood. Both of my children understand what matters, it is not what we take from a community but rather what we add to it.
Little did I know when I started down this road in 2004 that service comes often comes with sacrifice not convenience and along with that moonlighting, long nights and a strong sense of dedication, all of which has been my life since founding Less Cancer.
These last years have not been about comfort and convenience, but about working to protect all our children, the “next generation” from the sharply increasing incidences of cancer projected by the World Health Organization.
As I get back to focusing on the present, I am about to be interviewed on camera as board members Larry Fisher and Miles O’Brien arrive. They like most all involved have had painful loss as a result of cancer. I am not sure why I am on camera with so much talent in reach from Larry to any number of the cyclists: Miles, of course, has a lifetime of reporting stories. I am overtired, not had a real sleep in days and I think to myself that I hope I make sense.
I love that people are starting to understand prevention, yet despite a growing understanding at my core, I know there is nothing positive about cancer, nothing good about the suffering, and loss. I know after a century of dealing with cancer as a “break and fix” model our only chance at cracking the code on increasing incidences of the disease is to stop it before it starts. Over half of all cancers are preventable, and as an organization those are the ones we focus on ending.
So many people are making huge sacrifices to make this ride successful words can never begin to express the gratitude. The bike ride not only keeps the organization afloat and allows us to grow but receives much-needed attention in the public eye, state house(s), and nationally on Capitol Hill.
Before the interview, Maeve makes sure I do not look like an unmade bed, which often is the case. She is quick to remind me to tuck in my shirt and not to eat a thing in case I miss my mouth and stain my shirt. Her watchful eye is busy scanning me and any potential crack she will need to bridge. I must say, she comes by it honestly; she is a problem preventer. Maeve since she was in grade school, would pass out the flyers on Capitol Hill introducing herself to legislators on behalf of Less Cancer. We are missing another secret weapon this ride, and that is my son Ian who has the same skill set as a problem solver
Miles, the award-winning journalist, a critical Less Cancer leader lost his left arm to amputation due to an accident, will soon be getting on his bike to head to northern Michigan. My mind wanders again as he warms up on his bike in the cavernous lobbies of the Fisher Building. I think of his efforts, his loss and his ability to overcome. I am inspired every time I see him.
Larry Fisher soon arrives with enough coffee for several people juggling bags and hot cups. This building was built by Larry’s great-uncles and great grandfather.
Miles and Larry are two men I once stood on stage with as three four-year-olds for a Christmas pageant. They, of course, were wise men, and I think I had a leading line of “baaaaa,” as one of the many sheep. For a lifetime they have stood with me, and I think of the many hurdles I have made because they said, “You can do it, Couz!” However beyond the loyalty that comes with friendship are sometimes strong directives to get the organization closer to our goals of ending cancer. They like many of our board members are keenly focused on the work of Less Cancer and are committed to the work. They first hand know, and friendships aside are driven to get solutions for ending cancer. While we have a shared history, we have shared goals. As time goes on we as an organization are connecting with more and more people who wish to see cancer prevented.
So much has changed since the early days and the rise of the Fisher Building, which today stands much more as a symbol of sustainability and the hope for the rebirth of healthy and thriving neighborhoods. For me, there is something larger and connected to our mission for Less Cancer. For when we have healthy and sustainable communities we often see public health problems decrease as we see gaps bridged on social issues such as poverty and illiteracy.
The cyclists are all in place: Suzi Tobias, founder of the ride four years ago; Dave Toutant, who has ridden since there were just a couple riders that did the distance; and Gerry Schilling, Craig Feringa, Tom Petzold, Jeanne and Tricia Petzold,M.D, Andrew Bowman, Bob Brutell, Ed Shumaker, Miles O’Brien, Lars Perkins, and Brian Doooms. They all took care of each other throughout the ride, including through over 40 miles of rain, all riding for Less Cancer. They came from Michigan as well as California, North Carolina, Virginia, Massachusetts and Utah. Unfortunately, unavoidable circumstances kept two of our team members Beth Skau and Chris Renouf away from the ride but were there in spirit.
While I worry about all of the details, Craig Feringa reminds me if I want a risk free event I might want to consider Bingo! Craig is a registered nurse and a lawyer. And he was right that my worries were unnecessary: whatever community we rode through, the people we met were supportive.
Everywhere we went, as the team peddled, we met people who want what we want: Less Cancer. From a couple of men on the corner cheering in Highland Park in the early morning hours to complete strangers asking me if I was with the bike ride and thanking us. We even had one woman we had met at the hotel in Detroit who was from Petoskey and met us at the finish line.
Another force on the team is Gina Baubie Whitney. Gina like so many has suffered loss. She looks like someone you would find on a paddle tennis court, but for us she was driving a Penske rig, hauling coolers up and down ramps, and coordinating food, ably assisted by Susan Tait. It is not a job for the weak. I like to think of them as Thelma and Lousie. These two like to laugh and were good at making others laugh as well, and together could serve up the best, with a side of sass. They were the mother ship providing food, comfort, love, and positive thoughts. Gina first went with the ride three years ago and drove a lead car, and since then she has become the mistress of hospitality, combining science and art to produce one of the best-supported rides in the United States.
Two others who were invaluable were two registered nurses, Julie Schilling and Kim Juif-Mckernan. I am not even sure how to describe their magic, but they were the counterparts to the hospitality of Gina’s moving van! They were some combination of badasses and angels that swept in and ran the show when it came to the cyclists health from iced towels to checking fluid intake to ensuring cyclists were ok to ride and if not often made a strong suggestion to get in their truck.
We had help from the world of law enforcement: Steve Thiel who helped to navigate the roads and guided out of the metropolitan area and John Kretzschmar, who communicated throughout the preparations and the ride with police, double-checked maps and traffic hiccups and yes, even a closed bridge.
Nearing the Perry Hotel, Photo by Ruthie Petzold.
When we got finally got to Petoskey, Michigan, and the Perry Hotel, Beth Lowery was there to ensure people were welcomed appropriately.
The cyclist were met to cheers and honking cars. And yes we met our goal raising over $50,000!
This is an extraordinary group of men and women. They move the people in the neighborhoods they pass through and are instrumental in moving our country towards looking at cancer in a new way. They inspire others to have a role in our work and stand with us.
The work for Less Cancer is critical for bringing cancer prevention to the forefront; we cannot save every life, but we do know that over 50% of all cancers are preventable. We would not be doing what we do if the science did not guide us in our work. We know that when we can create policies for those that cannot protect themselves, like minors, we can save not just lives, but also countless dollars. Prevention for our organization is truly the goal. We know that for those who survive a cancer diagnosis, they are never unscathed. While I always hope for the cure, I know our best chance for beating cancer is preventing it.