Through tragedy and triumphs, Gilbert vows to enjoy the ride


Rebecca Turnbull

President Jerry Gilbert shows off the specialized, lime green Allez bicycle he bought this year to continue his cycling passion in Huntington.

“You don’t know, do you?” the student asked Jerry Gilbert with a strange look on his face.

“What?” Gilbert replied.

“Harrison died.”

“You’re kidding.”

“No. He was in his bedroom just talking to his wife and fell over…”

The student’s information left Gilbert stunned.

Just a couple months prior, Gilbert had been riding alongside retired engineer Harrison Caldwell while cycling on the 43.6-mile Tanglefoot Trail through Pontotoc, Mississippi.

Gilbert ran into Caldwell on the trail frequently and he eventually was able to visit Caldwell’s home right off of the trail and see the art shop where Caldwell created metal sculptures as his wife painted pictures.

“He was a great cyclist and he was as neat a person as I’d ever met,” Gilbert said.

But now, after talking with a student from Pontotoc about Caldwell, Gilbert had come to find that his inspiring friend had passed away.

Gilbert’s cycling adventures then took on a different meaning for him beyond getting outside or exercising.

“It just made you think, you know, you really have to enjoy the moment,” Gilbert said. “He [Caldwell] sort of gave me that ‘life is short’ understanding.”

Now, as president of Marshall University, Gilbert keeps Caldwell’s legacy in mind as he cycles around Huntington in his free time on his lime green Allez bicycle.

Gilbert said he has been cycling since his sophomore year in high school in Jackson, Mississippi, around 1969 or 1970.

It all started with a Raleigh 10-speed. Gilbert said it was love at first pedal.

“It’s the independence,” Gilbert said. “The feeling that you have being powered on your own. Having the wind in your face. There’s a sense, when you’re out in the air and you’re moving, that you’re free. That you’re in the elements.”

Gilbert’s journey with his first bike lasted for three years until he decided to upgrade to a newer Raleigh 10-speed.

He cycled with this newer bike all the way through his undergrad at Mississippi State, finally retiring the bike to the garage after completing his graduate studies at Duke University in 1982.

The bike remained inactive until a few years ago, when Gilbert took its handlebars back into his own hands to lead the bike out to be sold in a garage sale.

About half a year after selling his bike, Gilbert had grown “bored” of jogging and other forms of exercise, finding his way back to bicycles again.

This time, Gilbert said he had his eyes set on a specialized, black Allez bicycle from overseas in Britain.

Gilbert’s wife joked with him that he’d probably buy the bike and then never actually ride it, but he got it anyway and ended up riding it quite frequently and for relatively long distances.

The over 40-mile Rails to Trails’ Tanglefoot Trail quickly became his favorite spot to cycle.

The trail passed through scenic rural areas and intersected with the occasional sheep farm, where Gilbert could hear the sheep’s bells clanging against their necks as they watched him ride past.

Gilbert said such sights and sounds proved to be a fun sort of therapy for him.

“You’re alert to your surroundings, but you’re also sort of able to be alone and think,” Gilbert said. “It’s very relaxing.”

Gilbert would cycle for at least 20 miles up and back each time he rode the trail. But Gilbert said he knew he had it in himself to take on longer distances.

“You know, you see the Tour de France and you say, ‘Yeah, I could do that,’” Gilbert said.

Gilbert accomplished his longest distance just this past August, when he cycled for 62 miles along with nearly 800 other cyclists in the annual Bikes, Blues and Bayous bike ride through the Mississippi Delta.

Gilbert said he was pretty exhausted by the end, but it only made him more excited to try and reach more cycling goals in the future.

Gilbert’s passion for cycling moved with him to Huntington as he assumed the presidency of Marshall University towards the end of last year, but his bike did not join him in the move.

Since he was unable to pack his bike along for the ride, Gilbert said he embraced the new chapter in his life by purchasing a specialized, lime green Allez from Jeff’s Bike Shop in downtown Huntington that has the same components of his black Allez in Mississippi.

Gilbert can now occasionally be seen riding through Ritter Park or up to the Huntington Museum of Art to work towards his summer goal of building endurance for longer distances.

Gilbert said one of his future long-distance cycling goals is to try out the Greenbrier River Trail.

Gilbert also said he encourages others to consider cycling and make healthy goals for themselves.

“I think people that have never done it would like it if they tried it,” Gilbert said. “It’s a fun form of exercise that is good for your health and it’s a way to be outside and enjoy your surroundings.”

Whether others eventually join him in his passion for cycling or not, Gilbert said he will stay pedaling as he remembers Caldwell’s legacy and challenges himself to live life to the fullest while his tires still have air in them.

Life may indeed be short, but the trail stretches ever on for Gilbert and his specialized, lime green Allez bicycle.

Rebecca Turnbull may be contacted at [email protected].