Bicyclists from throughout Alabama and several other states converged on the Perry County town of Marion for the first-ever Old Howard 100 Bike Ride Saturday, April 9. The event, sponsored by Samford University's Howard College of Arts and Sciences, benefited Sowing Seeds of Hope non-profit quality of life initiative in Perry County.
The 144 bikers, representing various ages and degrees of biking experience, left the Marion Military Institute (MMI) parade grounds on routes ranging from 30 to 100 miles through the scenic backroads of Perry and Hale counties.
They were led for a short distance by Samford vice president and general counsel Bill Mathews on his "high wheel" bike, a replica of what a Howard College student might have ridden in the late 1800s.
The Old Howard 100 was designed to celebrate Samford's heritage in Perry County, where the school was founded as Howard College by Alabama Baptists in 1841. The school moved to Birmingham in 1887.
"I was surprised at the people who showed up to participate in the ride," said Howard College of Arts and Sciences dean David W. Chapman, who deemed the event a success. "We had experienced cyclists and people who had never ridden in a planned bike ride before."
Veteran rider Rosie Armstrong of Birmingham was complimentary of the Samford effort as she stopped for refreshment at the Holmstead Hollow Support and Gear (SAG) stop, her last respite before the final leg of her 70-mile ride.
"The SAG stops are great, the scenery beautiful and the route wonderful," she said. "I've heard no complaints, and I've been on rides where you heard nothing but complaints."
That would be good news for ride organizers and riders Bridget Rose, curator of Samford's Beeson Divinity Chapel, and Dr. Rosemary Fisk, associate dean of the Howard College of Arts and Sciences.
The five SAG stops, which offered refreshment and a bit of local hospitality from area residents, were staffed by Samford faculty and students. Other Samford volunteers stayed busy in Marion.
"One of our goals was to involve as many Samford students as possible," said Chapman, who tallied more than 120 students working either the bike ride, a Fun Fest at MMI for area youngsters or a health fair in Marion.
"I think they all came away with a deeper appreciation of Samford's history and a greater understanding of the challenges facing residents of the Black Belt," said Chapman.
For several years, Samford has sought to assist the area that nurtured the school during its early days. Students and faculty members regularly visit Perry County to serve as volunteer tutors, healthcare workers and community boosters.
During the bike ride, students from Samford's exercise science and sports medicine department and McWhorter School of Pharmacy assisted with a health fair at the Perry County Public Health Department.
They conducted assessments on body mass index, body fat, flexibility and strength tests.
Down the street at a former National Guard Armory building, more exercise science students did general cleaning and repaired exercise equipment.
"It feels good to know you're helping a community that needs help, that we're helping somebody's life be better," said Jeff Bennett, a fitness and health promotion major from Alabaster, as he and psychology major Scott Pryjmak of Huntsville worked to repair an elliptical exercise machine.
A few hours later, they would welcome community residents to the freshened space, and demonstrate the safe and proper way to use the equipment.
On the MMI campus, Samford Student Government Association and Omicron Delta Kappa leadership honor society held its third annual Fun Fest for Perry County kids.
According to Samford ODK president Maureen Simpson of Spartanburg, S.C., the group enjoys its continuing relationship with the people of Marion. "It's a fun way to bring out the kids and their parents," said Simpson.
Samford student actors performed a bit of Shakespeare and a staged combat demonstration. A musical combo entertained as everyone munched on hamburgers and hot dogs.
Judging from the squeals of delight as dozens of youngsters made their way through the inflatable rides, the Fun Fest was a big hit.
Several dozen Samford representatives and area residents helped dedicate a restored historical marker in Greensboro at the site of the 1823 founding of the Alabama Baptist Convention. (SEE RELATED STORY.)
Tired, but happy, bike riders returned to the MMI campus over the course of the afternoon.
Riders included several father-son duos, such as Shelton Beaird, age 65, of Arab, and his son, John, age 27, who lives in Heiberger in rural Perry County. They rode 66 miles, a record distance for each, in about five hours.
Like many other riders, they learned new things about Samford's Perry County heritage.
"I knew that the school was named Howard College before it was Samford, but I didn't know much more about the history," said the elder Beaird.
James McGuirk, a third-year student at Samford's Cumberland School of Law, especially enjoyed the rural setting of the route, which was carefully designed by Fisk to avoid busy roads.
"I liked the low traffic. There were some isolated areas where you really didn't have to worry about vehicles,"said McGuirk, who is originally from New Jersey. His wife, Jenny McGuirk, a staff member in Samford's Beeson Divinity School, was on the bike ride committee.
John Gemmill of Birmingham thought the bagpipe music he heard as he rode through Greensboro was a "nice touch."
"I've never been serenaded by bagpipe music along a route before," he said, referring to music provided by Samford sophomore Steven Giles of Gilbertown. Giles, who played his bagpipe at the historical marker dedication ceremony, performed a little extra as riders passed the busy intersection.
Ride participants had been encouraged to enjoy the historic points of interest in the area.
Gemmill's wife, Jill, had fun combining the physical activity of the ride with a more relaxed pursuit: shopping
Having not ridden in a while, she was coaxed into the 30-mile route by John, a 100-mile rider, with the idea that she could browse Marion's quaint gift and antique shops while he completed his longer route.
At day's end, she recounted with satisfaction that she would return home with newly acquired jewelry, fresh baked goods she had bought from a local Mennonite woman, and a few sore muscles.
"What more could you want?" she asked happily.