Flying into central Ohio in the middle of winter is less than inspiring, unless you happen to live there I suppose. I thought about that on my approach to Columbus International through a typical thick gray overcast that gave way to a marginally more translucent view of gray fields, gray highways, and gray buildings; the kind of views that could only inspire Russian novelists and other upbeat types.
The year was 1990 and I was there for the second round of a job interview. My timing was less than stellar, as I had only one semester left before graduation from law school. If I had been graced with a brain in my head rather than a life-plan modeled on Chaos Theory I would have been home celebrating the holidays, and on my own final approach to graduation and taking the bar exam. As it was I was applying for a job at the American Motorcyclist Association. My only excuse was I loved bikes more than I loved lawyers.
I met the man who would be my boss at the airport, Robert Rasor. He along with another compatriot in the Government Relations Department apparently intended to screen me over lunch at a nearby restaurant. I managed to order something that I would not end up wearing on my tie, and cleared whatever hurdles necessary such that I was taken back to the office for a full screening by all the vice presidents they could muster over the holiday season. As job seeking goes, things were going pretty well.
Rob had impressed me with his candor, his directness, and his bearing, I knew I liked the guy and felt I could do a good job for him and the department. Shuttling from office to office it was pretty standard interview fare, they were sizing me up and I was trying to determine whether the upside of working in an industry dedicated to a passion I loved was worth abruptly changing course on my future and moving to Ice Station Zebra. And then I met Greg Harrison, at that time the Executive Editor of American Motorcyclist, the Association’s in-house magazine.
Rob and company had an orderly interview process; where do you see yourself in five years and the like. Greg had a more unique style that I’d loosely define as human. He correctly surmised that after being interviewed in Washington DC, the airport over lunch, and throughout the day around the office, I’d probably been interviewed to within an inch of my life. So after making a half-hearted attempt to sound as though he was adhering to some sort of review protocol, he chuckled, tossed his hands in the air, and asked, “So, do you ride?”
Hah! Do I ride? And we were off. I talked about working in a bike shop and racing, starting off on a Yamaha SR500 and a Powroll-built FT500. It turned out we both loved big Singles. He brought up the SRX600 that he had a starting problem with, and that got me talking about Larry Burkholder’s blazingly fast SRX600 that left me for dead at Road Atlanta on the back straight at WERA’s GNF. We laughed a lot. Then we got to troubleshooting his Yamaha’s starting problem.
This went on for a half hour, then an hour, then an hour and a half. I lost track of time, and then the afternoon was gone. We had bench raced way beyond our allotted “interview” apparently to judge from the knock on the door and the announcement I had a plane to catch.
Oh yeah, that, a plane, right. But we were just getting started.
As it turned out, we really were just getting started, as I got offered the job and without a second thought jumped at it. The weather wasn’t exactly inspiring in central Ohio that time of year, but Greg was. If Rob had sold me on the mission of the AMA, Greg had sold me on the idea of being there; I wanted to be around people like that.
Rob gave me a sense of purpose, while Greg showed me the phrase “living the dream” wasn’t a fantasy; it could be attained, I had seen it. And he wasn’t done; he had a role to play in that as well.
I joined the AMA and I worked in the Government Relations Department, it was a rewarding job. I liked the people we worked with, I thought the world of my boss, and I continued to roadrace on the side when I wasn’t traveling for work. And then opportunity literally came tapping at my door one morning in the somewhat nefarious form of Bill Wood, who referred to himself as the magazine’s Barely Managing Editor. Bill was skulking around the government relations offices with an odd proposal.
Kallfelz (left), AMA Hall of Fame Hillclimber Earl Bowlby, and Managing Editor Bill Wood (right), charged with Kallfelz’s housebreaking.
The magazine had received an invitation from Kawasaki for a sportbike introduction at Laguna Seca, but they had a problem. The magazine staff was better configured for Americade than Road America, so they didn’t have an in-house knee dragger. So Wood had a proposition to make, contingent upon my boss saying yes: Go to Laguna Seca, ride whatever they had, don’t throw anything down the track, come back and write about it.
They extended this offer not having the vaguest idea if I could write. I accepted this offer not having the vaguest idea if I could write. Rob, my boss, said yes, wished me luck in a, “How can you keep them down on the farm,” sort of way, and couldn’t care less if I could write. I think he just wanted his legislative affairs specialist back in one piece.
I loaded my helmet, beat-up leathers, back protector and boots in my gear bag and went. I discovered how the other half lives in luxury resort golf clubs, played pool and drank beers with Scott Russell – former WERA racer and Solmax endurance go fast guy done good – discovered what a luffa was when I found one in the resort’s shower stall and determined it was not a giant Nabisco Shredded Wheat, and I did not throw a bike away. We came, we saw, and we smiled a lot, which is pretty much what I wrote. As luck would have it, the piece was well received and I thought that was the end of it, but not long thereafter I got another surprise; would I consider jumping ship to the magazine?
Would I consider? Please understand where I came from: I was a privateer roadracer; I worked in a bike shop combined with the GI Bill to get through college; I was out there in central Ohio in the first place because I love bikes more than any practical consideration like coasting to a law school degree. Would I consider? Yeah, I’d consider. There, I considered, yes, 1,000 times, yes! I will take that job at the magazine.
You see what just happened there? Greg, and his second in command, Bill Wood, had made that happen. My decision was easy; that was the culmination of good sense be damned and follow your heart. And that is a classic example of how one person, unbeknownst to them at the time, and maybe unbeknownst to you, can have a dramatic affect on the trajectory of your life, in this case for the better.
Greg died last week and I felt gutted when I received the news. I went back and read some of Greg’s columns from the ’80s, and from my time in the ’90s, that is the one nice thing about writers, even when they’re gone, part of them remains. I could hear his laugh again, his irreverent humor, his jocular praise whenever I arrived home from a tire or bike intro having not tossed a bike away, “You’re my hero!” he’d say. Then he’d want to hear all about it.
Greg Harrison oversaw American Motorcyclist magazine during a time of unprecedented growth. His good nature, his humor, and his love of motorcycling and the people who ride them came through in every column he wrote.
I miss him; I miss the good that was him. Truth was he was one of my heroes, he had found a way to make his love his career, and he brought a number of like-minded souls along with him – no small trick – and he showed me it was possible. I was lucky to have known him and have called him my friend and boss.
I never regretted that decision I made in late 1990 or where it has led. And I’m thankful for the people that gave me that opportunity and the things I learned. Greg was one of those people, and I wish I had the wherewithal to properly thank him while he was here. He was an affirmation of something I had not fully thought through at the time, something important: Use your head, but follow your heart.
Ride hard, get off the brakes and turn it in, and look where you want to go.