Tom Lyons has developed an enthusiastic following as he zips around Neenah peddling a trishaw with two happy people out front.
“I laughingly call them my customers,” he said. “I have kind of a clientele and I don’t want to disappoint them.”
Tom has worked as a volunteer “pilot” for the Valley VNA Senior Services since they first launched their Cycling Without Age program in 2017. The program, which began in Denmark and has spread across the globe, offers free bike rides to assisted living residents.
The rides bring tangible benefits for both passenger and pilot, including fresh air, fresh perspective and, occasionally, fresh flowers.
One day, as Tom biked two charmers down Limekiln Drive, they spotted a woman waving frantically from her garden.
“We thought maybe something had happened,” he said. “We were all three a little worried.”
Then, the woman ran up with two flowers she had just cut from her garden and handed them to his passengers.
“They were so tickled, they put them in their hats,” he said.
Tom calls his peddling path a natural progression and it began in a Milwaukee newsroom 43 years ago. That’s where Tom, editor of the Brookfield-Elm Grove Post, met Carol, a recently divorced mother of four sons who loved words and figured she could make a living using them.
“She was just a super bright person,” Tom said. “She just went, ‘How hard could this be? I’m good with words.’”
Carol developed into such an accomplished reporter that Tom and her editor got into a bidding war over her.
“She was so good at what she did that we all wanted to work with her,” Tom said. “She was my friend Dennis’ primary correspondent and I kept trying to hire her away. She was too loyal to Dennis, though. I would joke around with her all the time. ‘We’ll pay you 10 cents a word more.’ But, she wouldn’t do it. So, I played the ultimate trump card. I married her.”
The two enjoyed 17 years in the newspaper industry together, sometimes working for the same paper and sometimes as rivals. Then, they moved to their dream home, a cabin in Door County, where Carol wrote and directed plays and founded Door County Magazine, and Tom worked as marketing director for the Door County Visitor and Tourism Bureau.
Ten years later, their daughter in-law became very ill, so Carol and Tom moved to Neenah to help care for their grandchildren.
Then, their life together took an unwelcome turn.
Diagnosed with Mild Cognitive Disorder in 2008, Carol developed Alzheimer’s Disease. As they dealt with the effects of that awful disease, she and Tom found their way to the Valley VNA through a program called “Lyrics and Laughter”, which uses music for brain stimulation and physical health.
When Carol became a fulltime resident at the facility, Tom showed up three times a day to visit and started to volunteer. After Carol died last July, Tom not only increased his volunteer hours, he also facilitated two men’s support groups and started training to become an resident assistant.
“Again, that is just a natural extension of being part of that community,” he said. “There is a tremendous need in all the assisted living facilities around the country. The need is growing and there are limited resources. I thought maybe I could be of some assistance.”
He’ll continue to operate the trishaw and facilitate the support groups while he works toward his RA certification.
“At 73, I put my scrubs on for the first time yesterday and I thought, ‘Woah!’” he said.