Generous, unselfish and compassionate together are a combination of character attributes not frequently found these days. For most of us, there are only a few occasions in our lives when we are blessed in meeting people with an abundance of these qualities. When it happens though, we are extraordinarily touched and very aware of the significant role they play in helping others. Just as difficult to comprehend though is how misfortune somehow weaves its way into the lives of these special people.
Last April, I met Penny Sharp, volunteer and co-chairperson for the Kansas City March of Dimes Bikers for Babies event. In our brief discussion, she mentioned to me a gentleman who has been instrumental with recruiting volunteer support for many varied charitable organizations in Kansas City for over the last 25 years. As she described the individual and his efforts, there was unabashed respect and enthusiasm in her voice. The contributions she mentioned were significant enough that his story needed to be told. She asked if Cycle Connections would be interested in doing it, and I told her that we would be glad to. With the 11th Annual March of Dimes Bikers for Babies® Ride right around the corner, the time is right to share it. The individual she spoke of is Don Post, and her words and expressions could not have been more genuine.
When I followed up with Penny this month, she began sharing with me lists of names and her personal experiences from working with Don. The depth and compassion she displayed heightened my interest. Then she shared the difficult news; Don has ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. ALS is a progressively weakening disease that attacks nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord and results in muscle weakness and atrophy. She went on, “I don't know anyone else with or without a disability that has been as committed to volunteering in this community. I am not exaggerating when I say there are hundreds of people who care about him. . . Yet, he is as humble as they come.” She recommended I contact these people, get their stories and conduct an interview with Don through email as he was having difficulty speaking, but not as much when typing.
I began to make calls to the names Penny provided and what followed was an amazing journey through a web of contacts, all with overwhelmingly positive things to say. Ken Stone, General Manager of Worth North Harley-Davidson said, “Don considers himself as one of the lucky ones- he’s always worried about others and is always out to do something good.” Kay Julian, president of the Mid-America Chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis, who worked with Don for 14 years with NMS, had this to say: “Don will always have a very special place with me. He’s smart, charming, engaging, funny and intuitive. He always did the thankless jobs and never with complaint. He is loyal to his friends and I simply cannot praise him enough.” Gail, from Gail’s Harley-Davidson said, “You know the saying about how you wish you were half the person your dog thinks you are? Well, Don is all that and more! He is gracious in all he does and he just goes so overboard to help.” Larry Staples, friend and fellow ham radio operator had this to say, “A remarkable human being - too good to be true! The right kind of leader, a person other people want to see succeed.”
Throughout my interviews of those who knew and worked with Don, I soon recognized that I could never reach the end of the list. Each person I contacted gave me at least another name or two or more. Based on what was shared with me by those I was able to contact, one could likely write a book on the compliments of those who have come to know and appreciate Don. The positive comments and additional references continued like water from a wide-open faucet. No matter who I talked to, their observations were all the same; highly respectful, appreciative and all with a healthy dose of admiration!
My personal interviews with Don consisted of a series of questions in emails as well as a visit to Gail’s on Saturday, August 26, where the Bikers for Babies initial pre-registration was held. Our chat took place in the diminishing shade of a Ryder Rental truck, delivered to the site by long time friend and other co-chair of Bikers for Babies, Steve Yates. Over a two-hour period, while the afternoon heat increased and the slight breeze disappeared, we chatted about many things. Our discussion was a wonderful experience that clearly established to me a foundation for the great level of respect that others hold for Don.
Dressed in blue jeans, a loose fitting button up shirt, glasses and ball cap, Don was alone, but smiling and observing the flurry of activity of the pre-registration. Seated in his powered chair, with joystick, throttle and adjustable seat, with both lift and recline capabilities, Don frequently demonstrated his skills at maneuvering it around. Often, he adjusted his location, ensuring he was able to speak audibly, hear the discussion and remain in the shade. Having worn out several other chairs, he does not hesitate to test its limits, be it over rough terrain or through mud; “I wanted a chair that could go anywhere.” He clearly enjoys talking to others and helping in any way that he can. He considers himself lucky that these charitable organizations have asked him to work with them!
Don has clearly established himself as a strong survivor. Most ALS patients do not live five years beyond it being identified. In Don’s case, it has been 25 years since his first diagnosis. Although ALS hinders his breathing and continually challenges his ability to speak clearly, he remains persistent and patiently repeats the words that are difficult to pronounce. It is important to him that you understand his message.
Discussion between Don, Steve and I over the next two hours was incredibly interesting, remarkably enlightening and comical. The opportunity to spend this time with Don further validated the responses I had already received from those who had known him for years. It also gave me more appreciation and perspective of the written words included in Don’s responses to my emails. Packed with wit, charm, candor and respect, the messages were a joy to receive. The following is a compilation of our meeting and his written responses.
Born in Elwood Kansas in January of 1943, Don was the oldest of four kids. His father was a contractor, and the family moved frequently throughout the Midwest, eventually settling in the Turner area of Kansas City. When asked about his rearing, Don humorously commented, “My father was a Catholic, my mother was a Southern Baptist; I say I was just confused.” He also added this, a key to his giving nature, “My parents were very loving and caring. They taught me that we are ‘our brother's keeper.’'
Growing up with very little, Don quickly learned the value of a dollar and became an entrepreneur. At an early age, he started with food sales, the income of which he used to purchase his first bike, a Cushman Super Eagle. He reflected back on it with great pride, “I grew up kind of poor so I had to work for everything I had [but] it was mine. Wow what fun that thing was!” Later, he worked in heavy equipment sales in the Kansas City region and outlying rural areas. He also started his own business performing maintenance on tractors and sold drill bits used to cut blasting holes for the limestone caves underneath many parts of the Kansas City area.
During his youth, Don established a friendship with Steve Yates who was a member of the same graduating class of Turner High School, 1961. Together, they terrorized their neighborhood on their Super Eagles. What neither recognized then was their early friendship would lead to something much closer later on in life. Following their graduation, neither saw each other for many years. As the time passed, Steve, wanting to get involved with volunteering, followed up with a request to assist with the MS-150, a Multiple Sclerosis benefit by bicyclists. He was directed to call a number, upon which Don answered. To both of their amazement, they shared a common interest and their old friendship was rekindled.
Don has been married twice, has parented eight sons, four paternally and four from a previous wife. He currently is not married, but has a long-time girlfriend. All his children remain very important to him. Many of my interviews with Don’s acquaintances identified him as a real charmer and ladies man. Don’s reply: “I like women. I've always been that ‘good friend’, the one that the cheerleader comes to for comfort when their boyfriend does them dirty. I always say I'm really a woman trapped in a man’s body, but I'm a lesbian.”
Steve, now a retired pipe fitter and truck driver, shared some stories of their past history. During their sophomore year at Turner, another friend’s family had housed a female foreign exchange student from France. At a party at the friend’s house, the exchange student taught them all how to French kiss, with her as the instructor. But on this day, Don brought up an age old joke between the two of them. “He married my girlfriend,” Don playfully lamented, “I wish he’d die so I could have her!” Steve just laughs it off, obviously proud of the ongoing marriage with his wife of 42 years.
Over the years, Don had a few other bikes including a kick-start Sportster and a couple of Yamahas, but he commented, “I rode a lot on friends’ bikes. About the time I was in a financial position to buy a new, nice bike I got sick. As you can imagine, it cost a lot of money to raise eight boys--four of my own and four stepsons.” Other hobbies Don mentioned: “I'm a ‘car guy’ a ‘speed freak’ and a Harley lover. I collect anything I can that is motorcycle related.” But then he added, “My real hobby, my vocation, and my love is volunteering and volunteers.”
CC: I spoke with Don about his roots with charity.
Don: “I was a Cub and Boy Scout so I guess I have always seen my destiny as helping little old ladies across the street.”
CC: Who was the first charity group you worked with?
Don: “I guess it was Special Olympics . . . in William Jewell College in Liberty, MO. I went to the regional games in 1977 to help as a 'hugger' cheering the participants on. I met a young man named Patrick who befriended me. I was hooked. I will never forget Patrick.”
CC: Could you share more about Patrick?
Don: “When I met Patrick at the games, he asked me to sit down and visit with him. We exchanged names and then he told me he knew a song about my name, Don. I searched my memory and couldn't remember any so I ask him to sing it. He was delighted to perform and he sang all the verses of Delta Dawn. I just fell in love with Patrick's awareness of his surroundings along with the innocence he had about life. Patrick never seemed aware that he was different. I loved that about him. I have met many other young people with muscular dystrophy with that same wonderful attitude.”
CC: What influences in your life resulted in your interests to help others?
Don: “God, my dear sweet mother, my father, my scoutmaster, an organization I have belonged to for about 30 years called the Foresters and all the people I have volunteered with over the years.”
Note: Foresters, is based in Toronto, Canada and has over 900,000 members worldwide. They have been guided by a very powerful principle: the growth and prosperity of our members and their families is linked to the communities in which they live.
CC: What has been the personal impact on you as a result of working for others who need assistance?
Don: “I always refer to the years after my diagnosis as my good life. I always say that my involvement in helping others is more for me than for them. It gives me a real feeling of worth.”
CC: Besides the diminishing of your physical abilities, how has this illness changed your life and perspective?
Don: “It has given me a new appreciation for life. It seems like the grass and leaves are greener when you take the time to stop and really admire the miracle. My disability has allowed me the time to observe the many wonders of life. I enjoy looking for the good in everyone I meet.”
CC: How was it that you got involved in speaking about child abuse?
Don: “Through my involvement with the Foresters; they are the main catalyst for a lot of my volunteering. I have been an officer since 1977 and personally helped them get involved in March of Dimes three years ago.”
CC: What personality characteristics do you hold in high regard?
Don: “Optimism, loving, caring, sharing and believing in others.”
CC: What is your most rewarding experience personally?
Don: “That would have to be the birth of my four sons and sharing in their accomplishments. But after that I really get choked up during the Bikers for Babies event. I am so thankful to the staff and committee for allowing me to be a part of this awesome experience.”
CC: What would you say about the people of KC in regards to helping others out?
Don: “The people of KC are extremely giving and caring but we are very cautious. I find motorcyclists and ham radio operators, as a group to be the most caring in my opinion.”
CC: Back to riding, when did your condition force you to quit?
Don: ”I was diagnosed with ALS, Lou Gehrig's disease, in 1980 and really lost my ability to stand up about the time of my oldest son's death in 1985. I still ride in my mind and dreams.”
CC: In your dreams when you're riding, are there any special locations you end up going to?
Don: “Locally, the one highway I've always dreamed of riding is in northeast Kansas along the river up by White Cloud and going in to Rulo, Nebraska. That is so peaceful with the river on one side and the bluffs on the other. It is beautiful in the autumn. I've always dreamed of riding down the Gulf coast of Mexico from Texas to Panama. Mexico is such a beautiful country.”
CC: Following your diagnosis, you were not given much time left. Twenty-five years have now passed and your attitude remains incredibly positive. Some days must be more difficult than others?
Don: “Some days are very difficult and I would rather just lie in bed and feel sorry for myself. However, I make it a practice to never go to bed at night without planning something to do the next day, thus forcing me to get up and live. The best medicine I could ever have is the great friends I have and the new friends I meet almost daily.”
CC: Since you identified the birth of your sons as the high point, the loss of a son had to be very difficult. Recognizing that losing children is one of the most difficult things any parent could endure, would you share what occurred and the impact on your life?
Don: “Phillip was almost 21 and was out with some friends riding in the back of a pickup. They were going too fast on a gravel road and the truck flipped over throwing Phil out and breaking his neck. It was the night before one of my stepsons’ wedding so I chose to not tell most people about the accident until after the wedding. I didn't want to ruin their night but it was extremely difficult greeting all the guests knowing my son was lying in the funeral home. I also lost my oldest stepson to an accident after my divorce. I loved him like he was my own son so that was very difficult to handle too. I do have many wonderful memories of both of them.”
CC: I noticed that you listed God first as your influence to help others. In spite of the denominational 'confusion' you mentioned earlier, your faith obviously plays a big role in your life. Would you share some words on that?
Don: “I've always had a strong faith in God and believe he will take care of me. I love the people in my church but I don't believe that you must go to church to be with God. I believe God is all around us and wants us to be ‘our brother’s keeper.’'
Don’s signature trailer at the bottom of his emails reads, “The best part of any journey is the people you meet along the way.' As I rode away from Gail’s in the heat of that Saturday afternoon I had goose bumps. I knew that I had been in the presence of a very special person. Some things in this world are beyond common understanding. Some people are as well!
For more information ALS, go to:o www.alsa.org.
Story by Nic
Photos by Nic, Stripe and Marilyn at Central Harley-Davidson.