A friend of mine was murdered six days ago. He was 43 years old and left behind a wonderful wife and son. And amidst the heartbreak and the tears, my friend left life as he lived it – focusing all of us who knew him on the capacity each of us has to make life better.
We first came to live in our town in 2001 – my wife’s grandmother was nearly 90 years old, and we decided to move close to her so if she passed away we wouldn’t wish we had been with her – we would have actually been with her. This was prescient, as she did pass away six months after our fateful decision to be with her.
I’ve always been a big fan of cycling, and I brought my bike with me when we moved – an “exotic” Pinarello I bought with part of my signing bonus when I got out of business school in 1990. One of the first things I did once we got settled in our new home was to go out for a bike ride – Southeastern Wisconsin is an awesome place to ride a bike – miles and miles of country roads and beautiful scenic farmland.
So there I was, I’d just finished one of my first rides and I went to a convenience store in town to get something to drink. I was sitting on my bike and noticed a guy across the street walking by, see me, do a double-take, and then make a beeline for me. He introduced himself, and then proceeded to ask about the bike and offered a load of suggestions about routes as well as let me know there were Tuesday/Thursday “no drop” rides leaving from the Trek factory in town. Before I knew it we’d exchanged contact info. My wife remembers me coming back from that chance meeting excited to have had such a warm welcome to the cycling community.
That guy was Ken Myszkewicz.
Those “no drop” rides in hindsight are where Ken’s character were revealed, time and again. I’m a bike nut, but I’m not a cycling athlete. I love riding bikes, and I did show up on more than a few of these rides. The group would head out for two hours of riding, and the pace would pick up along the way. I would generally be at the back of the group, my eyes focused on the hub of the rider in front of me. As the pace increased and as I got tired, tunnel vision would develop, and about all I could see was that hub.
Cycling is a surprisingly mental sport. When you’re tired, and all you can see is that hub, staying “on the wheel” of that person in front of you becomes your mental obsession. It’s your lifeline to the group. Fall back too far and you won’t be able to speed up enough to get back on the wheel, and you’ll be riding by yourself.
There’s even a term for this – “yo-yo-ing” off the back of the pack. Fall behind, work your way back up. Fall behind again, work your way back up again.
And “no drop” rides are where the pack keeps its speed to the point where no one falls off the back. It’s humane to the less capable, justifiably annoying to the better cyclists.
On my first group ride there I was, 20 miles in, and at the back. Yo-yo-ing. And as hard as I tried, I was starting to fall back. With my tunnel vision I didn’t notice a rider look back, and then slow down and move up behind me. Moments later I felt a firm hand on my lower back, and it pushed me forward. Right up behind the wheel of the rider at the back.
That was Ken. No words. Just help. And while he had a legendary reputation for being able to set a pace for a ride that would leave the entire group scattered and exhausted, he chose to take his abilities, and his heart, and direct it to helping others stay in the group. It was a choice.
Ken was a legendarily competitive cyclist, who founded more than a few cycling teams and who raced and won just about every kind of cycling race that exists: road, cyclocross, endurance, mountain biking. He worked at Trek – how much better does a job get if you’re a cyclist?
When he found out I was nuts about cycling and that Greg Lemond is a hero of mine, Ken made sure to get Greg to sign a photo when he stopped by the Trek factory.
At the service I met people he made better by helping them keep up. The people he made better by setting a pace on competitive rides that caused them to dig deeper for strength and mental toughness than they could have on their own. He made people better by simply showing up, at races, at rides, at school events. When I spoke with others who knew Ken this generosity of spirit is what each and every person I spoke with remarked on.
Ken was both a man of few words, and amazingly skilled at conversation. He could remain silent in a group, and offer one-word answers and what one might describe as even grunts if he thought the subject was mundane or frivolous. Yet he could also engage you in a conversation for hours if the topic was worthy and you were game.
When we first moved to our town, for about five years we would host a holiday party. At the first year the party ended at about 9, and everyone left, except Ken. He grabbed a beer and continued talking for the next two hours. It was a good, thoughtful conversation. If it had been anyone else we would have thought “why won’t this guy leave” – but this is where Ken was at his best. We took it as a compliment, that this was Ken’s way of letting us know he was comfortable and felt welcome. With the crowd gone, it was just him and you. For the next few years we would plan these parties knowing there would be the time we told guests the party would end, and then there would be the time when Ken would leave. We’d plan for at least an hour. This paid dividends. We got to know Ken’s wife, Kim really well, and this cemented the friendship our children had with their son, Tyler.
Of the hundreds of photos we saw yesterday, every single one had Ken, his wife Kim, and their son Tyley with big, beaming smiles. Every one.
These weren’t forced. They were genuine reflections of the hearts that produced them.
The searing loss for me is that it’s precisely too late to let Ken know how much I valued who he was. And yesterday at the service I saw hundreds of people who Ken had made a difference in their lives, and they couldn’t let Ken know either. Because making a difference in someone’s life most often is done in a way that neither party notices at the time. Ken changed lives because of who he was on a daily basis and he never helped people to be noticed. There were no heroics involved.
And my life was changed by Ken in ways I only see and appreciate through the pain of his loss and a broken heart.
At Ken’s service yesterday the most telling, awe inspiring moment happened when another cyclist stood up and asked “How many of you have had Ken show up and push you back up to the group?”
And more than 100 hands went up.
Ken was an awesomely accomplished cyclist, won more than his share of races. He was a fiercely competitive person. But the difference he made with his life was not what he won, but the choices he made to help. 1000s of times. The choices he made to live his life.
The very wise and kind pastor who oversaw the service yesterday closed it reminding us that the daily generosity Ken practiced is what we should focus on in our own lives. How we can do more, every day.
For me, I will look more generously to find those who are”yo-yo-ing” in life and be that person who shows up with a firm hand, to help push them forward.
Ken is gone now. But he left us all an example about how to live a life.