SAM’S LAST ‘GANDER
By Ron Campbell / July 24, 2017
TRAVERSE CITY — “Be cool today,” retired autoworker and Michigander legend Sam Kennedy told me before breakfast in the South Haven High School cafeteria Sunday morning. The forecast called for sunny skies, high humidity and temperatures soaring into the mid-90s.
That was the opening paragraph of a front page story I wrote about Sam and the ride for the Grand Rapids Press six years ago, during Michigander 20, in the southwest corner of our state. It was accompanied by a photo of Sam applauding at a riders’ meeting.
Here’s some headline news for you: There has never been, and there will never be, a cooler cat than Sam on this bike tour we all love, even in the hottest weather. So now it is our turn to applaud him.
This is his last Michigander, Sam tells us. He’s moving to Brandon, Florida — gonna have a guest bedroom there, Sam? — with the woman he honeymooned with on Michigander III, his lovely bride of 23 years, Rita.
What will we do without him? Who’s going to help settle disputes in camp? Who’s going to preach the Michigander gospel of uncommon sisterhood and brotherhood, of the kind of interpersonal bonds and camaraderie and, yes, love we can only dream about during the other 51 weeks of the year?
Who’s going to wave those checkered flags and make riders’ hearts swell with pride as they pass under the Michigander Finish Line banner, with Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family,” Edwin Starr’s “Twenty-five Miles” and Queen’s “We Will Rock You” blaring on Rita’s boom box and Sam yelling in his second-generation pastor’s voice, “COME ON HOME!” and “LOOKING GOOD!” and “CONGRATULATIONS!”
We all know the answer, of course. No one can ever replace Sam on the Michigander. And nothing will ever replace the Michigander for him.
“My job is to make everyone coming across the finish line feel like a rock star,” Sam said to me Wednesday night in the Leland Public School cafeteria.
He’s been doing his job well.
“With the flags waving and the music blasting, you feel like a kid again, riding with friends,” said Jane Bowie, a retired elementary school teacher and veteran of 10 Michiganders who lives with her riding companion, 77-year-old Dick Quinsey in Naples, Florida. “You feel like you’ve won something.”
When word got out that my mother had passed away two days before the start of Michigander 25 last year, Sam Kennedy was one of the first of my ‘Gander friends to send me condolences and encouragement. He had lost his mother a few years before. He knew intimately what I was going through, and understood how painful it was for me to miss my favorite week of the year, and instead endure the worst week of my life.
My Mum, Gwyneth Rose Campbell, a reserved and proper English lady who hailed from Liverpool — the Merseyside town that gave us the Beatles — always got a kick out of following the ‘Gander through my articles. She felt that she got to know Sam a little bit through those stories and photos, especially the finish line shots of a muscular, shirtless Sam waving those iconic checkered flags in his high-cut zebra shorts.
“Oh, that Sam Kennedy,” she’d say. “He’s such a show-off!”
That was one of the few times Mum was wrong. Sam wasn’t showing off; he was simply giving his fellow riders what they wanted. A spectacle at the end of a long, spirited, challenging ride, well-deserved accolades acknowledging a genuine accomplishment.
The shirtless thing started out of necessity, Sam told me. In the early years, cyclists concluded the tour by crossing over an imaginary finish line, then packed up their bike and gear, grabbed a piece of cake and a ride certificate and headed home. No fanfare, no music and no flags. It occurred to him that something was missing. Something that he could provide.
A celebration. Of the ride, of its incredible camaraderie and really, of life itself.
When Sam first started working his finish line magic, he had no flags to wave. So he took off his shirt and waved that. Fortunately for us, he’s a champion bodybuilder.
Then came the checkered flags, which longtime volunteer Judy Dobbs stitched up for him. And Rita, the music, the bullhorn and the banner. And the fellow riders, volunteers and staff with noisemakers and other kitschy stuff along the finish line, joining Sam in congratulating the sweat-soaked, sore-muscled, triumphant tear-stained finishers.
And the legend of Mr. Finish Line.
“When I broke out the striped shorts and the flags, it was a slam dunk!” Sam recalled with his big, gap-toothed smile. “I started to feel, ‘I own the finish line.’ ”
He has come to own our hearts as well, and the feeling is mutual. When I asked him what he will miss most about the ride, Sam didn’t hesitate.
“My Michigander family!” he said. “I am as close to them as anyone can get without being my blood family.”
Sixty-four-year-old Sam Kennedy grew up in Inkster, Michigan and graduated from Airport High School in Carleton in 1971. He worked in parts supply for General Motors for 34 years and has always been a car guy, hence the flags. He has four children, three step-children, eight grandkids and a great-grandson on the way.
When he read about the very first Michigander in the Detroit Free Press in 1992, he was intrigued, but hesitant.
“Nobody wanted to go with me, and I’m not a camper,” he said. Given the fact that Sam has become probably the most beloved Michigander figure of all time, this seems unimaginable now, but he added that another reason he didn’t sign up for Michigander I was that he wasn’t too sure how things would go “as the only black guy on a bike tour with 500 white folks.”
He gave the Michigander a shot in ‘93, partly inspired by a story about Bob Gibbs and his poodle, Babe, who rode on a carpeted platform attached to the back of Bob’s bike. Sam has been with us ever since for 25 straight rides.
“I showed up on Michigander II with a $100 Huffy and a borrowed tent and air mattress,” he remembered. “I didn’t even know how to shift gears properly. It was rough.”
But it got better. Sam now rides a sleek black $2,500 Cannondale Raven mountain bike. He has earned the nickname Pit Bull for his cycling prowess and been the focus of numerous articles himself. Which brings me to one of my favorite Sam Kennedy stories.
On the morning that “Be cool” cover article ran in the Grand Rapids Press in July, 2011, Sam stopped at a gas station somewhere along the route in Kent County for a cold drink. A wide-eyed young kid had that day’s paper in his hands. Sam noticed him looking his way, doing a double-take. Then the guy approached him.
“Are you Sam Kennedy?” he asked. “May I have your autograph?”
“I was shocked, dumbfounded!” Sam said with a big laugh. “It was unbelievable. I ended up being in the paper for doing something I love to do. I never set out to be, quote, ‘a legend.’ ”
I remember Sam coming up to me the next morning. I could tell he was proud of being in the news, but a little embarrassed at the same time. “You’ve been calling me a legend, and ‘the Heart and Soul of the Michigander,’ and making me out to be some kind of hero,” he said with a sheepish grin.” I don’t know …” He didn’t complete his thought, but his humility was clearly showing.
On the last day of Michigander 23 in 2014, Sam and veteran rider Brian Rumohr — the son of volunteers Dave and Lee Rumohr and a bank manager who had to miss this year’s tour because he’s overseeing the opening of a new bank — set out early on the White Pine Trail to prepare for the Grand Finale. Just south of Cadillac, they encountered a black bear about 100 yards down the trail, “higher on all fours than our handlebars,” Sam said.
They stared each other down, and after a tense few moments, the bear eventually lost interest and scurried back into the woods.
Sam joked on Facebook after the tour that he would be working on his zero-to-sixty acceleration time. Another ride veteran, Kristen Kramer, helpfully pointed out: “You don’t have to be able to pedal faster than the bear; you just have to be able to pedal faster than Brian.”
As I reflect on all that Sam has done for the Michigander, all that he has meant to this one-of-a-kind rolling celebration of life and its participants, I am inclined to believe that the opposite of what Sam was thinking after he got that autograph request is closer to the truth.
Maybe I didn’t make enough of a hero of you, Sam.
Truth be told, I’m not buying it, that this is really your final ride with us. I simply can’t imagine the Michigander without you.
You have to take a man at his word, though, and if this truly is your last ‘Gander, I will close with this: Thank you, Sam, for being our rock star, our goodwill ambassador, our brother, our friend. Thank you for always being cool. Best of luck, and happy trails to you.,
But you know what? A man can always change his mind. So please come on home again, Sam, one of these years. We are family. The doors, the trails, and especially the finish line will always be wide open for you and Rita on our beloved Michigander.
After all, it gets awfully hot in Florida in July, and where else are you going to be able to get away with showing off in high-cut zebra shorts?
—Detroit-based freelance writer and Michigander veteran Ron Campbell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. To view his collection of other Michigander articles, log on to ronsmichiganderblog.wordpress.com.
— For more information about the Michigander Bicycle Tour and Michigan Trails & Greenways Alliance, please log on to michigantrails.org or michigander.bike.