This was written by Peter Cole and posted to the Usenet group rec.bicycles.tech (yes, I know I’m a geek, and yes I got his Peter’s permission first).
I attended Sheldon Brown’s memorial celebration last Sunday. It was held in the afternoon in the church across the street from Harris Cyclery. There was a memorial ride before the event, but I was unable to participate.
There seemed to be 200+ people in attendance, the large church was almost full. While there were many from the local cycling world, I’d say we were slightly outnumbered by the community theater and singing folks. The event lasted about an hour and a half, mostly consisting of remembrances delivered by family and friends, some singing, both by performers and the assembly, and some Morris dancing. The Reverend Deborah Pope-Lance gave the welcome and closing as well as some shared remembrances.
Sheldon’s wife Harriet gave the first remembrance. She spoke quietly and warmly about how she met Sheldon at a club ride, where they first noticed each other’s unusual bikes. She recalled their many family cycling trips on Sheldon’s homemade tandems, including one favorite memory when they were interrupted in their tour of Cape Cod by an approaching hurricane and they worked together as a family, helping to get the youth hostel ready for it.
Sheldon’s daughter Tova spoke next. She struggled with her composure, holding back the tears as she described the warmth and affection she had enjoyed from her dad. She smiled as she described parenting Sheldon style, where the children’s rooms had both ABC’s and periodic tables on the walls. Her memories of bedtime stories were not Mother Goose, but things like Galileo vs. the church and how an airplane wing works.
Sheldon’s older brother and sister told us some growing up stories. Arlene laid claim to being Sheldon’s original cycling instructor, remembering how she would sit 3-year old Sheldon on the cross bar of older brother Richard’s bike, letting him steer sometimes while they rode off for day-long adventures hiking near their home by the Tappen Zee bridge in upstate NY. Richard recalled Sheldon’s enthusiastic conversion to communism at age 13, which he claimed to have cooled off by introducing him to Orwell’s “Animal Farm”.
Long time friend and local cycling author/advocate John Allen described his collaborations with Sheldon, including some videos they were producing together, regretting that they had only completed the first of a planned series. He joked about his frustration, during his 30-year friendship, over the way Sheldon could always go him one better every time he thought he had a cycling brainstorm. He gave a graphic demonstration of this by performing a tire folding method he thought he had perfected, then showed Sheldon’s inevitable improvement on it.
The Reverend Pope-Lance had us all laughing when she read a list of some of Sheldon’s favorite quotes — many of which are familiar to readers here. Any misgivings I might have had about the irony of Sheldon’s memorial being held in a church were swept away when she handled the inevitable anti-theistic ones with a graceful chuckle. She then read several tributes posted from cyclists around the world who had been touched by Sheldon. From the hundreds received, we heard voices from every continent, all appreciating his generosity mentoring his Internet friends.
At the end of the gathering, members of the MIT Chantey Chorus sang the “Mary Ellen Carter”, with the congregation joining for the chorus:
Rise again, rise again,
Though your heart it be broken or life about to end.
No matter what you’ve lost, be it a home, a love, a friend
Like the Mary Ellen Carter, rise again.
Many of us choked back tears watching Harriet, Tova and George holding each other for comfort as they led the singing of the deeply moving piece.
After the memorial, we made our way to the parish hall. There, on a small stage, several of Sheldon’s favorite bikes were on display. A few laptops had been set up on tables running slides shows of photos familiar from his web site. I mingled there awhile, in the eclectic throng, bikers in jerseys, tights and clompy shoes, Morris dancers in red shirts and (real) bell-bottomed pants; friends, family, bikers, singers, dancers and all, a true slice of Sheldon’s remarkable life.
When I left, I went to retrieve my bike from the 30 or so behind the church. Mine was the only MTB, I rode it over in part because it was the only “whole” bike Sheldon ever sold me. Of course by now it’s a mongrel mix of odd parts, and that, more than the bike, is a tribute to his impact on me. There were many similar mongrels out back, including an obviously home-made recumbent with a sign on the back: “If you don’t like an 80 year old on a bike, think about me driving a car”. That said, there were also a number of elegant vintage bikes, and fixers of course, and more Brooks saddles than I have ever seen in one place.
I pedaled home slowly in the bright cold afternoon, past Harris Cyclery, past Sheldon’s street, past the town field where the fireworks are held, past the old hardware store we both loved, to my home, to my garage full of bikes, thinking about him all the way. Life’s short, and you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.
Peter “I miss you, big guy” Cole