Chris Kegel passed away this morning, surrounded by family and loved ones in his comfortable, but unassuming home on Milwaukee’s west side. Last September, Chris was diagnosed with a rare, advanced and fast-paced form of cancer that originates in the bile ducts which drain bile from the liver. His oncologist gave him three to six months to live without treatment and perhaps 11 months with. Chris accepted his fate with the same dignity and grace that he has demonstrated his entire life.
I think I can honestly say that I have Chris to thank for my life, both literally and figuratively. In 1992, Chris sold me my first adult bicycle at the old Hales Corners Wheel & Sprocket store on Forest Home Avenue. At the time I was a photojournalist covering all the Bucks, Brewers, Admirals and Marquette games for the wire services. After the games the other photographers and I would go out to shoot pool and have a few beers. I wasn’t getting drunk every night, but I was worried about the sheer odds of hurting someone accidentally since I was driving under the influence (even legally) so often. Not knowing anything about bikes, I went to Wheel & Sprocket where they helped me buy a Trek 820 mountain bike with slick tires, fenders, lights and a rear rack to get me from the games to the tavern and back to my studio. That started me on my life of commuting by bike.
When my more athletic friends heard I got a mountain bike, they tried to get me to go ride at the Kettle Moraine trails. At the time I was also smoking 2-3 packs of Vantage cigarettes a day and told them that was not what this bike was for. Eventually they got me out there and I loved it. I started riding more for fun, stopped smoking cigarettes, started racing, got a job building bicycles for Waterford Precision Cycles, and eventually started working for the Wisconsin Bike Fed.
Not only did Chris and that white Trek 820 with the splatter paint put me on a healthier path, Chris has been my closest advisor in my bicycle advocacy work since I opened the doors for the Milwaukee office of the Bike Fed. While I was filled with desire to share my newfound passion for cycling and make my home Milwaukee a better place to live, I really knew nothing about bicycle advocacy when I was hired. So just like when I knew nothing about bikes and turned to Wheel & Sprocket, I turned to Chris when I didn’t know what to do at the Bike Fed.
Even though I lived and worked on the east side of Milwaukee, Chris never expressed surprise at the number of times I “happened to be riding by” his store in Hales Corners, just so I could lean on him. Chris was never too busy to talk to me.
I always left those conversations feeling good about whatever decision I had to make, but even more importantly, I left feeling more centered. If I was angry about something, Chris’ would help me see the other side of the issue. If I was worried, I left feeling confident. When I was tired, I left feeling renewed.
It wasn’t that Chris always had a simple solution to whatever problem I brought to him. In fact, we are still fighting many of the same battles today, despite all the new bike lanes and trails. No, in visit after visit, what Chris selflessly gave me was the confidence to follow my moral compass and by his example, hold a sustained faith in the power of hard work done with joy. In fact, I cannot think of anyone who has made hard work look so appealing as Chris Kegel.
What is even more amazing is that my story is hardly unique. I am just one of literally thousands of people from across the country who has benefitted from the unrivaled passion, endless patience, and genuine kindness Chris shared with all who met him.
So thank you Chris, for being the best you could be every day and encouraging the rest of us to do the same. In my future times of self-doubt, I hope the employees at Wheel don’t mind if I “happen to be riding by” and pop in the store in Hales Corners, even when I don’t have anything to buy.
Like a far away bright star, your light continues to shine and help guide us.