After Losing His Wife to Breast Cancer, Gary Wobler Fights Back with Pedal 4 Pink
He first laid eyes on her years ago, in high school. When he tells it today, he's still excited, remembering the moment, like it just happened.
"One day I just saw her at the end of the hall. Oh my, she was beautiful."
The place was a small town in Ohio. Gary was a football and basketball star, Arlene was a cheerleader, and an artist. They became high school sweethearts.
"I can't tell you how many balls I dropped, always looking over at the sideline. I couldn't help it…"
Two years later they were married, and so began a friendship that lasted more than half a century, the kind of marriage that builds a broad family tree. They traveled, lived in different cities, saw America; their children grew up, they filled photo albums.
And even as they grew older, together, they always stayed active, together, riding trails, skiing, running, inline skating. They were both fit. So when Arlene was diagnosed with breast cancer, it came as a great shock. They had always done all the right things, laughed, loved, lived a healthy life. But cancer doesn't work like that. Arlene passed away August 14, 2011. It was a loss that Gary, now 73, has struggled with every day since.
"I cry a lot. I just miss her. When I'm riding, I can still hear her at my back wheel."
Long-time supporters of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, Gary and Arlene had shared many trail adventures. And in the years of her illness, Arlene skated three miles a day, every day, along the Monon Trail, which runs from Indianapolis north through Carmel, Ind. In the months after her death, trails have become an even more important outlet for Gary. They remind him of better times, of adventures with his wife—and they provide a physical and emotional release.
"I get out there on the bike, and I let it all out. Sometimes I scream, I yell, I cry. It's a way for me to feel better. If it wasn't for cycling, and those trails, I don't know what I'd do. She knew she was dying and was always so strong. I had seen her fall down and get up so many times before."
Tragically, life has shown little mercy for Gary in recent months. The sadness of losing his best friend and partner has been compounded in the last few months with the news that his son has developed a tumor on his skull. It was noticed the weekend all five children came together at the house to say their goodbyes to their mother.
"It was devastating to Arlene."
Soon after their mother's death, one of Gary's three daughters was diagnosed with breast cancer. She is 48 and will undergo surgery and treatments.
"It's been a tough year for the Wobler family," says Gary. Words can barely explain.
To his enormous credit, Gary is in no mood to lie down and quit, when few would deny him the luxury. Matter of fact, rather than bemoan his circumstance, Gary has thrown his energy into helping others fight the diseases that have devastated his own family.
The idea came to him after the Wobler family sought donations, in lieu of flowers, for the Indiana University Melvin and Bren Simon Cancer Center, where staff had formed a close bond with Arlene as she battled her disease. Gary was amazed by the amount of money that came in—people wanted to give—and it led him to consider what else he could do. He found his inspiration where before he had found respite—on the trail.
Gary is now planning the first-ever Pedal 4 Pink, a day-long event of bike races, family games and auctions, to be held in and around the city of Carmel. He envisions the event to be "like the [Susan G.] Komen walk for cancer research, but for cyclists and rollerbladers."
Gary hopes to have an event ready for Mothers Day 2012, and he is looking to use regional trails as a focus, and to make Pedal 4 Pink as much about celebrating trails as battling disease. Though he struggled initially with deciding specifically who he wanted to raise money for through Pedal 4 Pink, an experience at the IU Cancer Center shortly after Arlene's death switched on in his mind like a light bulb.
"When we went in there to donate the money that had been sent in, the doctors spoke to my three daughters about the importance of them being tested," Gary says. "One of my daughters has great health insurance and could afford the additional charge that comes with screening. So for her it was no question. But another of my daughters, her health insurance wasn't as good, and she couldn't manage the out-of-pocket cost. Luckily, I was able to help her with that, so she could get screened."
But it alerted Gary to what he sees as being a real problem in our efforts to reduce deaths from cancer in America. In a field where early detection is crucial to chances of survival, not everyone can afford to get tested.
"I believe it should be an equal playing field," Gary says. "Just because you aren't wealthy doesn't mean you shouldn't have access to decent treatment. Our country wasn't built like that." So now Pedal 4 Pink has a focus.
"My ambition is to fight like heck so other women have the opportunity to be screened."
During what must be an incredibly lonely time in his life, Gary is not short of supporters in the close-knit community of Carmel. The owners of the Carmel Cyclery, Pat and Valerie Marsh, have gotten behind Gary and Pedal 4 Pink—in fact it was Valerie who came up with the Pedal 4 Pink name and helped design a logo. The store has offered bikes to auction, and an inline skate company will donate blades. Hamilton County Leadership Academy is considering a service grant to assist with marketing.
Gary is eagerly searching for supporters, organizers and partners to help bring this noble goal to life. Informal alliances have been struck with Susan G. Komen and the Indianapolis Super Bowl Host Committee. But he realizes he lacks the expertise and connections necessary to build a successful fundraising event.
To hear him talk about the role that trails have played in his life gives a whole new dimension to these pathways we already love for so many different reasons. Few people could seem so full of gratitude during such a time.
"It's amazing what you find on the trails," he says. "It's country, it's fields of corn and beans, it's wooded areas, it's away from everything, no cars, no horns, the small towns pull you in to… Try one of those small-town restaurants and listen to the talk, great food, $2.50 for breakfast, the people on the trail are so interesting and pleasant. I've met Amish kids on handmade scooters, farmers. The other day I met a man going to Chicago. There's nothing more interesting than pulling up beside another cyclist and visiting. There are so many stories out there. I met an older gentleman where James Garfield grew up. We talked for some time, I finally continued north. He said, 'I hope we see each other again.' On my trip back south, there he was, 15 miles south of where we first met. He was sitting in his van waiting on me to talk again. You just can't beat those trails. With my wife passing, they have become such an important part of my life."