“When a kid has a bicycle, it’s liberating, it’s freeing,” says Dick Banks ’53, who has devoted a lot of time over the last 15 years to giving kids bicycles.
In 1996, working through First United Methodist Church in Tulsa, Okla., he and some friends established the Bike Club at the nearby Eugene Field Elementary School, situated in a relatively high-crime neighborhood near the church. Twice a year, in the fall and the spring, Banks leads a weeklong program that begins with about 20 students picking used bikes he has repaired. The students, who either cannot afford bicycles or have lost them to theft, also receive new backpacks and helmets. Those who follow Banks on a series of five daily rides of up to 15 miles, learn the laws for cyclists, and come to grips with basic safety and cycling etiquette are allowed to keep the bikes and riding gear.
“You give a kid a bike or you give a kid 50 bucks, and there’s not the respect for it that there is if that child has earned the bike,” says Banks. “There’s a great amount of pride and a feeling of accomplishment.”
At Banks’ home, used bicycles are stored in a garage workshop. On the kitchen table is a tool he uses to straighten wheels. “I love to fix bikes,” he says. “I love to get bikes that are in rough shape and fix them up and then see those kids ride them.” Cash donations and bikes come from church members and bicycle shops. Sometimes, Banks finds bikes left on the patio at his home. “My wife is the real hero in this. She puts up with all the bikes and mess,” he says.
The Bike Club program is open to fourth and fifth grade students, who must apply and be approved by their teachers. “There’s a lot of bad stuff going on and there’s a lot of mean stuff going on,” Banks says. “But they can rise above it, and I think I can help them rise above it.”
The rides take place on park trails along both sides of the scenic Arkansas River. “It’s like a little bit of freedom, because we get to just get away,” says Tatyana Pizana, 10.
At the end of the session, students compete in races and attend a pizza party and get T-shirts, award certificates and words of praise. “At home, they do not get a lot of encouragement,” says Banks, who has two sons and seven grandchildren of his own.
School Principal Cindi Hemm sees a difference in students who participate in the Bike Club. “Their attendance increases. Their fitness ability increases. Their awareness of their community increases,” she says.
Third-grader Donovan Williams says he had a bike before, but it was stolen from his home. He’s looking forward to riding to school with the bicycle he received from the Bike Club. “I’m going to care about it a lot,” says Williams.
When he’s not riding and repairing bikes, Banks keeps things ticking along at the business he founded 42 years ago to provide exploration software and consulting to the energy industry. “One megabyte of memory on a mainframe cost $1.5 million back then,” he laughs.
Banks graduated from Mines as a geophysical engineer. During his education, he worked at Foss Drug, which closed several years ago after 94 years of operation. “Heinie Foss is the Bike Club’s largest financial supporter,” says Banks, who is a cousin of Foss.
After graduating, Banks spent two years in Okinawa at the tail end of the Korean War. When he was discharged, he returned to school to earn a master’s in petroleum engineering from the University of Texas at Austin.
He may have a business to run, but these days Banks leaves plenty of time for working on or riding bikes, a hobby that is clearly keeping him fit. “Oh, 25 or 50 miles would not be a problem,” he says. “You hit a pace and you stay with it.”
And leading the young riders keeps Banks young at heart as well. “I am 79, but not when I am on a bike. When I’m on my bike,” he says, “I’m 18 again.”
John Gordan, reprinted courtesy of the United Methodist Church