May 2016 - ATHLETE PROFILE
Dick & Shari Gibbs
Age: 72 years young
Residence: On 130 acre farm in North Greenbush
Family: Two daughters: Jennifer, son-in-law Ken Block, Sam (13) and Anna (12) of Barrington, R.I., and Rachel, son-in-law Paul Shapiro, Lila (11) and Arlo (6) of Manhattan.
Occupation: Retired. Dick was a Research Scientist and Director of Mobile Sources with the NYS DEC, and Shari was a reading specialist in the East Greenbush Central Schools.
Primary Sports: Cycling (road, mountain biking, tandem, and newly purchased fat bike)
Secondary Sports: Skiing, Hiking, Walking
By Dave Kraus
Dick and Shari Gibbs arrived in the Capital Region in 1966 from Minnesota, almost penniless and married for all of three days. Dick was going to RPI for his PhD in chemical engineering, and Shari, having interviewed over the phone, had a teaching job waiting for her in Cohoes.
It was an uncertain start. But over the next 50 years they have forged deep connections: with each other, with family, with a large circle of friends, with cycling, and with their home and farm near the Rensselaer Plateau.
The two met in sixth grade when Shari moved to Minnesota from Iowa. Dick can still describe the dress she was wearing the first time he saw her. Both came from large families; Dick one of seven children and Shari one of six. Farm life dominated their childhoods. Both rode horses and cycled, but nothing near a fitness level. Dick had a balloon tire bike, and remembers riding it mile after mile in Minnesota’s hot summer sun, with no hat or shoes, selling buttons as a fundraiser for “Ag Days” in their home town of Dodge Center.
Although they knew each other as classmates, they didn’t start dating until after high school. Romance blossomed through letters between Dick at the University of Minnesota and Shari at Wheaton College in Chicago. They married soon after graduation, and then to Troy.
Shari started her teaching job and Dick his studies at RPI. He also worked odd jobs, lasting only two days at $1.37 an hour unloading cages of chickens to go into Campbell’s Soup, before getting a job with a company that salvaged copper phone wires. That took him to the fire tower at Grafton, and after seeing the beauty of the countryside, he and Shari started hiking. They climbed Berlin Mountain weekly; gaining a love for the rural scenery, open spaces, and outdoor fitness pursuits. “We fell in love with the mountains, nature, trees,” he remembers. “It was a big awakening for us.”
In 1971, the couple bought an historic, run-down 1787 farmhouse on Hidley Road, the birthplace of noted early American painter Joseph Hidley. They recall, “It wasn’t in good shape. The roof leaked, the well ran dry, and we could see the Rensselaer County dirt through the gaps in the kitchen floorboards.”
But they persevered, and today they still live in the totally renovated home. They have also restored the old Hidley family cemetery on top of the hill, a scenic setting for weddings, memorials, and baby naming ceremonies. It is part of what Shari calls “an enduring ‘sense of place’ that gives us a deep appreciation for the land and its people: our friends and neighbors.”
In 1976 Dick bought a used ten-speed bike to commute the 11 miles to his work. “The first day I rode the bike to work, I got there, and thought I’d died. I don’t think I got a lick of work done.” But by the end of that summer he was commuting every day, including climbing the 10% grade on Morrison Avenue in Troy.
Shari’s early riding was on a three-speed Sturmey Archer. Dick remembers, “Shari would stuff our daughter Jennifer into a blue backpackey sort of thing, and ride from North Troy up through Oakwood Cemetery to RPI, to meet me for lunch.”
But life, as often happens, threw a few curveballs at them. When they were 32 years old in 1976, Dick was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes and became dependent on insulin, and Shari’s health also deteriorated with a mysterious, undiagnosed illness. Dick recalls, “She spent much of January to March in hospitals, having tests, spinal surgery, a splenectomy, and exploratory surgery that revealed an inoperable mass on her pancreas. Nobody knew what to do. She was dying, down to skin and bones.”
Shari interrupted, “Let’s make a long story short. I looked in the mirror one April day and I was gray. I had watched Dick’s mother die with cancer and I knew that color gray. I had to act! So I called the doctor who, despite uncertain test results, had first suspected that I had lymphoma. He immediately began a ten-month chemotherapy protocol. Voila! Here I am today, a survivor!”
Back in good health and looking for new activities, the couple discovered the Mohawk Hudson Wheelmen in the mid-1980s, but it was not love at first sight for Dick, who admits he was a bit frightened by all the serious cyclists. “I mean, we were just riders,” he said. “There’s always a little hump of fear to overcome when you move out of your comfort zone and become involved with a group that could challenge your abilities.”
But soon they were deeply involved in the organization known today as the Mohawk Hudson Cycling Club (mohawkhudsoncyclingclub.org). They lost some of their interest in renovating the house and redirected their energy toward cycling. There was so much energy, in fact, that their daughters limited their parents to no more than five minutes of “bike talk” during dinner.
They led MHCC road rides, organized the club century, and the club’s first mountain bike festival at Grafton Lakes State Park. For somewhere near 25 years – they don’t keep track – Shari led a weekly Tuesday Night Rensselaer County road ride, and an annual Mount Greylock ride (70 miles with shorter options), followed by a potluck dinner at the Gibbs’ farm. They held a Monday night mountain bike skills clinic in their dooryard; friends continue to ride (and ski or snowshoe) the trails on their farm; with many of them showing up in November for “Thanksgiving under the Hemlocks.”
Between them they probably led 40 rides a year for over ten years. Names like the “Stephentown Stomp” in Rensselaer County, and “Best Ride by a Dam Site” (Gilboa Dam) in Schoharie County, were added to MHCC’s monthly ride calendar. Dick led the first mountain bike traverse of the Rensselaer Plateau; Shari has likely led as many club rides as anyone, her favorite being the challenge of the 45-mile “Cycle the Rensselaer Plateau.”
Today the couple still rides when they get the chance, though they admit their days of five-hour century rides are over. Thirty contemplative miles through the Rensselaer countryside is just fine by them. “We don’t have electronic gadgets on our bikes, nor keep track of miles. We just ride,” says Dick. Shari adds that getting outdoors is the important thing. Whether it’s on a bike ride or a snowshoe hike is irrelevant.
Dick and Shari have passed their joy and knowledge of mountain biking onto their four grandkids. According to Shari, “Sam, our oldest is getting quite good; the girls, Anna and Lila enjoy going out to be with the family; and Arlo, the youngest at six, is learning.”
They also keep busy with other commitments: Dick consults for NYSERDA; both belong to the New York Forest Owners Association, the Friends of Grafton Lakes and Cherry Plain State Parks, and successfully led the effort for the restoration of the 1924 Dickenson Hill Fire Tower – just east of Grafton Lakes State Park. However, their major volunteer focus is the Rensselaer Plateau Alliance (rensselaerplateau.org), a community-based group of volunteers committed to conserving the area’s working forests and sustaining the resources the plateau provides for trails, meditation, wildlife habitat, water and air quality, and a landscape ripe for human reconnection with nature.
They are joyful in the friends they have made and proud of the people they have helped to enjoy riding. Helping others is their great reward. Cycling holds a special place in their lives, and Dick observed, “It’s lucky for us and our 50-year marriage that we both ride at about the same level and that we love to ride together. We truly enjoy cycling together. How many 72-year-olds can say that?”
Dave Kraus (email@example.com) of Schenectady is a longtime area cyclist, photographer and writer who hopes he can also ride for 50 years.