Big Bikes, Big Hearts

The Herald | Big Bikes, Bigger Hearts

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Story by Allen Laman  

Photos by Traci Westcott

Dubois County representative for American Bikers Aimed Toward Education, Suzanne Eckert of Jasper, poses for a portrait with her granddaughters, Vera Heeke, 3, and her sister, Ella, 5, both of Ferdinand, at the Heeke home in Ferdinand on July 10.

All her life, Suzanne Eckert never felt like she fit in.

She was quiet and awkward — so much so, that when she couldn’t find something at the grocery store, she would leave and go to another one before asking a stocker for help. Just the thought of that interaction would make her physically ill.

On a warm morning in late July, the once-timid Eckert revved her Harley-Davidson’s engine in front of a swarm of more than 120 riders on 70 thundering motorcycles before leading their charge.

She admits she still has a little shyness in her. But when she’s around bikers, she feels something she’d never felt before. Strong. Bold. And accepted for who she is.

Edna Brown of Jasper introduces herself to Jane and Francis Egler of Ferdinand before Big John's Motorcycle Ride at the Dubois County Park in Bretzville on July 28. "You meet so many people," Brown said. "That's one of the biggest benefits."

Many are familiar with the motorcycle gang archetype. Riders prone to violence; rugged outlaws who use their clubs to organize crime. And they’re not a myth. That segment is still out there.

Locally, however, another group of bikers has formed — and the members couldn’t be more opposite. Named the Dubois County Motorcycle Club, the nonprofit organization of about 60 members bands together year-round to support each other and their community.

“It’s another family,” said Eckert, who is a DCMC member and the Dubois County representative for American Bikers Aimed Toward Education. “It is a family.”

Motorcyclists gather together for a meal blessed by Pastor Bob Eckert of Jasper following Big John's Motorcycle Ride at the Dubois County Park in Bretzville on July 28.

DCMC is an offshoot of the county’s ABATE chapter, and the groups’ memberships are nearly identical. Both entities are known locally for the fundraisers they hold during the warmer months of the year, including benefit rides across scenic Southwestern Indiana, motorcycle and jeep shows, a chili cooking contest and more.

Perhaps most notably, DCMC members embark on a Toys for Tikes ride each holiday season that has netted tens of thousands of dollars for local organizations and children during the past 22 years.

The groups’ giving also extends to struggling individuals.

Gary Hall, who is a member of both the DCMC and ABATE groups, once met a distraught couple in a hospital elevator. Through tears, they explained to him that their father had just had a heart attack, and they weren’t sure if he was going to make it.

“We did a poker run the next weekend and raised about $300 for them,” said Sylvester Voegerl, a former ABATE chairman and now the Toys For Tikes T-shirt sales chairman. “And this is what we do. I don’t know who these people were. But we took Gary’s word for it, and we went ahead and done it.”

When 11-year-old Isabelle Meyer of Jasper died in an accident at a Girl Scout summer camp in June, the Dubois County ABATE chapter attended her funeral and supported her grieving grandparents, who are members of the group.

Roy Rogers of Huntingburg takes a break at a stop along the Ohio River Scenic Byway during Big John's Motorcycle Ride on July 28.

New, younger riders have joined DCMC and ABATE, but the average membership age of both outfits is climbing into the 50s. Voegerl wants to bring more in. But things just aren’t the same as they used to be.

“We don’t have little kids running around like we used to years ago,” Voegerl said, reflecting on past events and meetings where that was the norm. “It’s changed. The motorcycling community has gotten older. It’s just the way it is. The younger kids that do ride motorcycles, generally, it’s hard to get ‘em to join.”

Many of those who are in the groups or attend their events don’t fit the image of a stereotypical biker.

There’s Bob Eckert — known universally as either “Pastor Bob” or “Preacher” — who left behind a life of addiction and crime to lead the Lighthouse Worship Center Ministry in Jasper. He and Suzanne attend biker rallies and provide water and coffee for attendees, while also holding church services and spreading the Christian faith. He says he prays for safe travels before the local groups’ rides.

“That’s what I’ve got on my vest now,” he said, referencing the sewn-on patch that says “Preacher.”

“That’s how the people relate to me,” he continued. “That’s what I am.”

There’s Jane Egler of Ferdinand who has ridden bikes with her husband, Francis, for five decades.

At an ABATE event in July, Jane shared memories of when the two participated in the annual Miracle Ride, benefiting Riley Hospital for Children. They were part of a team that raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the Indianapolis organization.

The first time she noticed Francis, he was racing at a nearby dirt bike track and giving it everything he had. The first time he noticed Jane, she was riding in a forest. Her bike was stuck, and she was lost in the fire lanes. Their first date was on the third turn at the Indianapolis 500.

Gary Lee Lackner of Stendal rides alongside approximately 120 other riders during Big John's Motorcycle Ride on July 28.

And then there’s Gary Lee Lackner, a 72-year-old ABATE member who lost his left leg serving in the Army during the Vietnam War. That didn’t stop him from riding. At a benefit event in July, he cruised the journey on a three-wheel motorcycle souped up with a 1984 Corvette engine. Since April, he’d already put 25,000 miles on it.

“I’ve ridden on practically every road in this state,” said Lackner, who has been riding motorcycles since he was 16. “There’s a lot of roads in this state that are just really beautiful. And it doesn’t matter if you continually go back to the same road, you always see something different.”

Every ABATE and DCMC member interviewed for this story agreed that the connections the local outfits foster are a huge reason they keep involved.

Faron Lasher, a former DCMC president and ABATE county representative, grew up in Perry County and used the groups to meet friends. Like Eckert, Lasher views the groups as a family.

But even outside of those groups, Lasher said the sense of community extends to everyone in the motorcycling community.

He saw it when his motorcycle broke down on the side of the road, and a fellow biker stopped to help him. Jane felt it when she traveled across the country on her bike and a stranger helped fix it up. Suzanne sensed it when she formed genuine friendships with motorcycle ministers in neighboring counties.

“It’s just part of the way it’s always been,” Lasher said. “Long before I ever got into it. The motorcycle community, even growing up when I was a kid, motorcyclists, they tend to stick together.”

Motorcyclists ride together during Big John's Motorcycle Ride, traveling 110 miles through Dubois, Crawford and Perry counties on July 28.

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