It’s a pleasure to meet Gary Smoot.
His calf-high boots are covered in dirt, and he’s spent the past few hours in the hot sun trimming weeds and doing other chores to keep University of Lynchburg beautiful. As he sits back in a red chair, he beams. “I’m just happy,” he says, explaining how much he enjoys the people he works with every day. “It’s like family — I’m sure you hear that all the time.”
This weekend (June 3-4), Gary will bike 200 miles for other people he considers family — a longtime friend whose daughter recently lost her life to multiple sclerosis. He is one of hundreds of bikers riding in Bike MS, a series of cycling events that raise money for the National MS Society. The Colonial Crossroads Bike MS starts Saturday with a circuitous route from Richmond to Williamsburg, Virginia. The following day, the cyclists will pedal back to Richmond.
This is Gary’s 27th year participating in Bike MS, which raises money to support MS research and other activities to improve lives of people with the disease. It’s one of several long distance cycling trips he has enjoyed over the years, but it may be the most meaningful.
About 12 years ago, Alice Smith, who has known Gary for decades, told Gary that her daughter, Rhonda Wilkinson, had been diagnosed with MS. Gary later asked if he could dedicate his Bike MS rides to Rhonda. He put a sign on his bike that said, “Bike built for two” and added Rhonda’s name along with his own. “He broadcast the fact that he cared for Rhonda and he was doing this for Rhonda,” Alice says in a phone interview. “Our family feels that Gary has dedicated himself to a cause.”
Since Rhonda died in May, her family has taken comfort in the fact that she is no longer suffering. “Through the years, her suffering was out of control,” Alice says. Ironically, Rhonda’s memorial service is scheduled for the very day that Gary will be biking to Williamsburg in Rhonda’s memory. “We feel honored, and that’s very significant.”
Gary joined the University of Lynchburg grounds crew about five years ago and has made many friends on campus in that time. This year, he has recruited Dr. Adam Dean, an avid cyclist and a history professor, to join him for Bike MS.
Gary has biked for much of his life, and he enjoys long rides for fun as well as for a good cause. Last week, he pedaled 140 miles round-trip from his Lynchburg home to Wintergreen Resort in the mountains of Nelson County. Although he faced some powerful wind gusts on the nearly 12-hour ride, he looks back on it now with a smile.
“To me, it makes you feel like a kid when you’re out there,” he said. “It’s competitive, and you can stay in shape while you’re kicking it with your best buds down the road.”