Jeff Gowen is a man who will bear no foolishness, regardless of the source. Even if that source is something blameless, like unseasonably cool weather. The Texan cursed the biting winds coming off the lake on this morning which had yet to reach 50 degrees. His lips curled into a wry smile which bordered on a sneer as he railed against the weather, nevertheless, his warm personality and sharp sense of humor shown through, despite his best efforts to appear put out by the cold. Joined by his wife, Rose, the pair walked their road bikes through the lobby, still geared up in kits better suited for a summer day that has not yet arrived. I felt a shiver of sympathy pass through me upon hearing of their ride up the lakefront portion of the Oak Leaf Trail. Having biked the route countless times, I know from experience how punishing the wind off the lake can be on chilly days. While suggesting a few alternate bike routes near the hotel, I discovered the pair were from the southernmost town in Texas, where the mercury routinely hovers just under 100 degrees. Those temperatures are wiltingly hot by Wisconsin standards, but the avid cyclists were used to pedaling in the heat finding the cold so uncomfortable, they ended the day’s ride far sooner than they had intended.
Later that week, I ran into Jeff again. He had just finished a 40 mile ride that took him on the portion of the trail that runs alongside the Milwaukee River. Our ever-growing Oak Leaf Trail contains well over 100 miles of paved trails, attracting bikers, runners and other recreationist to the path that is just blocks from the hotel. That ride was considerably warmer than the one earlier in the week; this time he stayed out long enough to enjoy the freshly paved portion of the trail, and participate in Milwaukee Bike Week celebrations on the pathway, which included complimentary coffee stops and bike service stations. We talked bikes, discovering we had both returned to biking as adults after facing unexpected health concerns. We reminisced a bit about falling in love with biking as children, when the wheels represented far more than recreation, more than transportation, but a true feeling of freedom and independence. Biking continues to let him experience an unrestrained life, albeit a different one, by helping him control his Type 1 Diabetes. The daily pedaling allows him the freedom to eat more of the things he wants, something he feels is well worth the time in the saddle.
Our conversation moved from our shared interest in cycling to the reason for his trip. His wife was participating in a national event hosted in Milwaukee which focused on expanding and transforming recreational trails. His description of his wife painted a picture of a women who is a tireless advocate of those in need. Her interest in trails is an offshoot of her efforts to combat the countrywide obesity epidemic she sees negatively impacting her patients. As a physician, she is deeply concerned about the health of her community and believes improved access to pathways is a way to improve the physical health and quality of life for all. His sardonic sense of humor disappeared when he spoke of his wife, his tone turning to admiration. He beamed with pride when he told of her accomplishments and it was clear he was still as smitten with her today as he was when he spotted her on the UT-Houston campus over 40 years ago. He described their 38 year marriage, which produced four children, as blissful and the smile on his face revealed the truth of his words.
We spoke of the pair’s work to impact a town he described as one of the poorest in the nation. He continually downplayed his own efforts, attributing all achievements to his wife, but it was clear he was also investing himself into transforming his community. The retired stockbroker was now teaching AP History and Economics in the town’s parochial high school, the same one his wife graduated from as the class Valedictorian. He had worked as a volunteer to revitalize public parks to ensure each citizen of Brownsville has access to a clean, safe, greenspace to enjoy. He is active in projects to expand trail offerings and connect recreational pathways between different cities in the Rio Grande area. It is clear he believes Brownsville, and towns like it all over the US, need reshaping and he is actively working to enact change.
Our conversation has me looking at recreational trails and greenspaces in a whole new light. He shared his insight into how these functional public spaces can work to not only improve the quality of life for all community members, but also act as tools of social justice by providing health benefits and transportation options to all citizen. As the Gowens continue to transform their community, and I am certain the ripple effect of their hard work will be felt in communities across the country. Perhaps one day their impact will be felt on our very own Oak Leaf Trail in the form of expansion to new neighborhoods not now connected by the pathway.