This is an extraordinary story about my father Ronald Robert Israel:
I still remember the day my parents sat me down to say that my dad was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. I was 17, entering my Senior year of high school.
Nothing noticeably changed for a few years. The first time I noticed was holding his hand in church and feeling it twitch. The disease was real and it was here.
There are those stories of people who are diagnosed with diseases and completely change their life around. My dad was no exception.
Ron was a 30-year employee for AT&T, starting out climbing the telephone polls and eventually installing communications systems on battleships across the world. My dad was gone for large sections of my life on these trips.
After the diagnosis, he was offered early retirement.
A year after diagnosis, he started attending these Personal Development seminars by the PSI organization. Some people say “when the student is ready the teacher appears.” I couldn’t agree with them more.
He realized how much of an impact he had on our family. Both positive and negative.
It was a complete transformation. He went from a very stern man, I was usually scared of…to suddenly this guy who would call me and tell me how much he loved me. Oh, and hugs… lots of hugs. What did they do to my father?
He inspired me to see that anyone can change. ANYONE!
Because of this life transition, I was forced to pay for college on my own. That’s when I took on my first sales job working for the Cutco company. Christmas, Easter, or Summer breaks I’d come home to work and sell knives.
At a conference, I met this guy named Hal Elrod, who inspired me to find something so passionate to work for that I’d be willing to put my whole heart in. That’s the true way to overcome obstacles. Find a big enough reason.
I decided for one summer to sell enough Cutco that I’d get to donate $1000 of my own commissions to the Michael J Fox Parkinson’s disease foundation.
And I did. Cutting a check for $1000 of your own money as a 21-year-old, while still having tuition, books, room, and board to pay for…was quite the experience.
It changed me.
My dad didn’t know about the donation, although I made it in his name.
The Michael J. Fox foundation sent HIM the thank you letter, to which my dad called me, beside himself.
It was another one of those teary-eyed, I love you conversations that mean so much to us, but then the phone was silent.
Me: “Hello, are you there dad?”
Dad: “Yeah, I just have this idea. What if…what if I rode my bike up to your graduation from college?”
Me: “What…dad…San Diego to Spokane WA…that’s like 1500 miles.”
Dad: “It’s closer to 1830, I looked into it a little earlier…”
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in life, if someone tells you a dream, no matter how crazy it sounds…believe in them.
Which isn’t always easy when you know their track record. Historically my dad was the dad who’d say “Let’s go to Disneyland” then bail last minute. So, I just kept those thoughts and comments to myself as we continued to talk about the journey.
Week after week, he’d give me progress reports. Hiring a trainer. Creating a workout plan. Mapping the trip out. Months and months go by and I’m just here waiting for that call to say, “You know what John, this just doesn’t look realistic.”
That call never came.
However, one month before the scheduled leave date for the trip, they had a problem…lodging. Where would they stay?
Stressed out, my parents decide to take a trip to Disneyland’s California Adventure to get their minds off things. When they walk out of the park, my dad’s phone rings. It’s Doug, our paraplegic neighbor across the street.
Doug: “Hey Ron, are you guys still planning on that bike ride of yours?”
Dad: “Of course, why do you ask?”
Doug: “Well, if you want some company, I could go with you and we could take my RV so we all have somewhere to sleep.”
Dad: Fighting back his tears “That…that would be great Doug.”
Prayers DO get answered.
On March 6th, 2005, my dad left Downtown San Diego on an 1830 mile bike ride to Spokane WA for my graduation from college.
Let’s not forget here that he has now had Parkinson’s for over 5 years. Every day he has to take his drug cocktail in the morning then get on his bike for as long as he can before everything wears off.
My dad said the hardest part is when he said he couldn’t control pushing one side of his body as much as the other side. Which is scary when you are on back roads and giant semi-trucks blow past you.
On more than one occasion, he was blown off the road. In one such instance, his bike cracked in half.
He called me that night, as excited as ever.
Dad: “Guess what?”
Dad: “I got blown off the road, and my bike broke in half.”
Me: ‘What…that’s awful.”
Dad: “No, it’s pretty amazing actually. We went into town and bought a new bike. I told them the story so they rushed the bike to Trek and they will have it fixed and delivered to Seattle WA in 1 month for me to pick up.”
Me: Grinning from ear to ear “That’s great dad.”
That kind of thing happened almost too much to talk about.
One month in, averaging 40-60 miles a day, he crosses the California – Oregon border. He calls me to tell me the news. I’m at a school retreat with about 100 other Gonzaga Students.
I put my dad on hold and tell everyone, “My dad just crossed the midway point on the trip. Let’s all show him how awesome he is.”
I put him on speaker and everyone starts cheering and screaming. The phone goes silent…
Me: “Dad…are you there?”
Dad: “Yeah, thanks, John. I gotta go.”
Later he told me that was one of the most extraordinary moments of his trip and he couldn’t keep it together on the phone, so he needed to take moment to weep. Like those moments a professional sports team wins the National Championship.
It was real. If he made it halfway, he could make it the other half.
But he wasn’t done. The last month…every day was a miracle. Just missing torrential downpours and snow.
We spoke nearly every day.
On May 6th, 2005, we stood in the quad of Gonzaga University awaiting his arrival. My good friend Adam Sobieski says, “Dude we need a finish line.”
To which he runs into the bathroom and grabs a roll of toilette paper
There he comes…my dad…wearing a yellow and black jacket…riding down the quad at 3 pm. The newspapers there. School officials were there.
He made it. He finished on the exact day at the exact time he declared.
It may have taken 3 bikes and 13 flat tires to get there, but he did.
It was a moment that defined something for me: Anyone can do something if they DECIDE.
Do you know what that lesson is worth to a child? Do you know how much this lesson has changed my life and the thousands who heard and watched this happen?
If you know me for making extreme commitments or doing epic things with my life, now you know where it comes from.
My dad passed away 3 years ago this August.
It’s Father’s day and I wanted to honor him by sharing with you this story. It means a lot to me that you read this whole thing. It’s been a pleasure and privilege having this man as my father.
We disappointed each other a lot, we made each other proud a lot.
Thanks to my mom, Kathleen Israel for sticking with him for 40+ years of marriage and being his caretaker the last 10 of those years.
Thanks to all my friends at Gonzaga who were a part of this journey, and every family member, friend, and client who supported the journey.
My children are 6.5, 4.5, 1.5, & 3 months. I’m both scared and honored. We believe what we see, not always what we hear or read. I pray to be a good example that they get to experience, just like I did.
I may not ride my skateboard across the country for their college graduation. But I’d consider it. Happy Father’s day everyone!