The afternoon was a scorcher when Joe Young looked out his window onto Gray Lynn Drive at the south end of Walla Walla earlier this summer.
In the shade of a tree on Joe’s lawn was John Colvin, seeking a brief respite from the baking sun.
Joe had seen the man before, of course. “My observation is that he’s here every day, rain or shine.”
Since January, John has delivered 123 Union-Bulletins each weekday and 145 on Sundays. His children had been newspaper carriers in the past, and the College Place native found himself in need of extra income.
He rides over to care for his disabled older brother every morning, then pedals downtown to our building at First and Poplar to fetch the papers for his two routes.
It’s that bike that drilled into Joe’s mind as he delivered a cold 7UP to the overheated man.
“It was the first time I’ve talked to him and I’m looking at his bike. My mind is saying ‘How does he even get around on this thing?’”
For example, it was obvious the bike with its high middle bar wasn’t the best style for the knees of a 58-year-old carrier, Joe explained. The homemade bike basket was fashioned out of chicken wire and baling wire, and the side saddle was broken in places.
“And he had no fenders and I know when he delivers in the rain, those wheels just throw all that water up on him. There was no tread left on those tires,” Joe said.
To top it off, John’s means to carry along his extra papers was a cart made of wood and lawn mower tires — heavy and not very maneuverable. John had to park it at central locations and ride back and forth to it to refresh his newspaper supply, Joe said.
Joe returned to his house with this on his mind. “I told my wife, ‘We have to get our paper man a new bike.’”
Joe and his wife, Virginia, are retired from lifelong high school teaching careers. They’ve lived in their house for 40 years.
The Youngs knew they could purchase a new bike for John but they also know about human nature, what with all those years of dealing with budding adults. You take a man like John, who’s not looking for any kind of handout, only honest work. You can’t just hand a bike over; that ends up being more a gift for the giver than the receiver, Joe said.
It took three nights, but the solution came at last, he said. “I woke up and turned to my wife and said, ‘Why don’t we talk to our neighbors about helping him get a new bike?’”
He started right away, approaching four or five neighbors each evening. The response took his breath away — people tried to press hundred-dollar bills into his hand. “I had to tell them ‘no,’ that it was too big of a donation. I wanted it to be a community thing.”
Joe made it to 25 houses on his street and Winona Lane, collecting enough to not only buy John the perfect bike, but a new, aerodynamic cart, as well. “I found it on eBay. I found 40 dealers had the same cart, then I found one in Texas priced at $74 and no shipping. And no one was bidding on it and it had five minutes left. I asked, ‘Dear Lord, don’t let anyone else bid on this cart. I don’t want a bidding war, this is for John.’”
The Lord was listening and in minutes, the cart was Joe’s, soon to be John’s.
Joe and another neighbor investigated all local bike options, finding every merchant eager to be part of the solution. The crew at Bicycle Barn bent over backward, packing the deal with all kinds of extras — puncture-proof tires, a front basket and back saddle rack, a lock system and fenders. “I was more than impressed with what they did for us,” Joe said.
Some people worried the shiny new gift might be stolen from John, Joe recalled. “I had to tell them the Lord has to take care of that. There are always ‘what ifs’ in life. Every morning I wake up, it’s a ‘what if.’”
Overall, though, the project validated what Joe already knew: “These are the kind of people we have in Walla Walla,” he said. “This is Walla Walla.”
John can only agree. The magnitude of what others did for him is still overwhelming, weeks after he put a thank-you note in every customer’s mailbox on Gray Lynn Drive and Winona Lane, he told me. “I really appreciate the bike very much. I always feel bad if something comes up and I’m late with the papers.”
He is not one to ask for handouts or loans, John added. “I try to keep my mouth shut about it and get by the best I can.”
He rides everywhere, and now he can haul groceries in the new bike trailer, he said.
It’s hard to imagine how he got by for so long on his old bike. “I got it free at a yard sale, seven or eight years ago. I’ve just rebuilt it several times, tried to make it work the best I could,” he said.
Before, he hadn’t realized how much effort had to go into moving his old bicycle from point to point. The new bike came with a odometer, he explained. “The first month I rode 630 miles. There’s not many people who can keep up with me on a bike.”
Mother Nature is still faster. During the early September wind storm that brought power lines down and sent tree limbs flying, John found himself furiously trying to stay ahead of the rolling mass.
“I was watching it over my shoulder and it wasn’t looking good. When it hit I knocked on the door of one of my customers and asked him if there was room in his garage for my bike and trailer. There was, and then he invited me in to dinner. I was watching the storm and eating pizza and drinking soda. Later, when my friends and family called, I let them know I made it through the storm better than they did.”
John believes his customers are the nicest out there, he told me. “Even before the bike, I was thanking God for the people on my route.”
John, I do, too.
Sheila Hagar can be reached at 526-8322 or firstname.lastname@example.org.