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Randy Smith, who is riding across the country to bring awareness to ALS and raise money for hospice, sits on his motorcycle along the shore of Lake Okabena. (Beth Rickers/Daily Globe)

Ride of his life: Texas man raises awareness for ALS, money for hospice

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For almost a month, Silas “Randy” Smith has been riding his motorcycle across the country and talking about his wife Sophia and the losing battle she fought with ALS.

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In the midst of those frequent conversations, he still gets choked up and tears run down his cheeks when he speaks about the disease that claimed her life.

“To me, it’s one of the worst diseases known to man,” he said. “There’s no medicine, no treatment, no cure, no hope.”

Randy is from Victoria, Texas, just a hop, skip and a jump away from Cuero, Worthington’s rival for the title of Turkey Capital of World, vying for that designation in an annual turkey race. His late wife was a Cuero native.

In late 2010, Sophia was diagnosed with ALS — amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, often referred to as “Lou Gehrig's Disease” — a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, weakening muscles throughout the body and eventually leading to death. For Sophia, the disease had a quick progression, and she died in hospice care just 28 months later, in April 2013.

During the last months of her life, even though her ability to communicate was limited by the disease, Sophia fought to bring awareness to her affliction, saying “someone has to stand up and fight.” To continue that fight, Randy came up with the idea of the ultimate poker run by taking a trip that he and Sophia had long talked about, traveling via motorcycle to the four corners of the country.

“We were going to put our toes in both oceans,” he related during his stop in Worthington earlier this week. “When she was diagnosed, we did a lot of things for the last time, but it went so fast that we didn’t get that one done. So before she passed, I bought that bike out there, and said I’d take this ride for both of us.”

With Sophia’s patch-emblazoned motorcycle vest wrapped around his pack on the back of the bike, Randy set out on June 1, heading west first and then up the West Coast. Along the route, he talks to as many people as he can engage, telling them about ALS and his hope to raise enough money to build a state-of-the-art inpatient center for Hospice of South Texas in memory of Sophia, encouraging them to make a $10 donation to the cause.

The donation amount is significant, he noted, because after years of working in the culinary industry as both a chef and waitress, Sophia found her calling as an Avon representative, rising to the top ranks of the company’s sales force.

“My wife was a recruiter and trainer for so many years,” Randy said, explaining that it only takes a $10 investment for anyone to become an Avon rep. “She always said that with just $10, she could change lives. She went from being a waitress to the top in Avon. One of her favorite sayings was, ‘A dream is just a dream until you physically make it happen.’”

Sophia was so beloved by her Avon colleagues, in fact, that the company honored her with its first yellow Rose Award, presented to leaders who demonstrate courage, strength, dignity and perseverance. Avon also created the Sophia Smith Yellow Rose pendant, donating all proceeds of it sales to the ALS Therapy Development Institute. Avon colleagues are also following Randy’s journey, and many of them have changed their Facebook profile pictures to that of a yellow rose in support of his ride.

Randy is now headed east. After traversing through Montana and Yellowstone National Park, he met up with friend Jode Zavesky in Durango, Colo. Jode is the sheriff of DeWitt County, Texas, and lives in Cuero, where he has been involved with that community’s TurkeyFest. His wife, Gina, has worked for Randy’s mortgage business for 20 years, and it was she who suggested Jode join Randy for a portion of his journey and go through Worthington, where they have many friends.

The two rode into Worthington on their Harleys on Sunday night, a couple of days ahead of schedule. An offer of a VIP tour of the Harley Davidson Museum in Milwaukee and additional publicity for Randy’s cause speeded their itinerary up a bit. But they still spent a more than a day in Worthington, connecting with friends Jode has made through TurkeyFest/King Turkey Day, and all the while talking about the reason for their road trip.

“It’s all about spreading the word of ALS awareness and to get people to make a donation,” Randy stressed. “I want to raise $2 million at $10 a throw, and that takes a lot of people. I want to name (the hospice center) the Sophia Smith Center of Compassion.”

So far, Randy has logged more than 6,000 miles, and the honor roll of donors on his website grows with each mile he puts on the bike.

“We stopped at this restaurant yesterday, and this guy comes up to us and starts talking,” related Jode. “Turns out, he’s from France. He reached into his wallet and gave us $20.”

Randy explained that donations are preferred through the website, www.rideoflife.org, but the man persisted, so he accepted the cash.

“What’s the best part of the trip?” said Randy, anticipating the question. “The people I’ve met along the way. There are a lot of nice people out there. There are plenty of wonderful people in this world. You just have to get out there and meet people.”

And Randy has many more miles to log and many more people to meet along the way. After Milwaukee, he will continue east when Jode heads home to Texas. Randy’s plan, following a short detour to Arkansas to visit his mother, is to take a path south along the East Coast, where he hopes to participate in some ALS fundraising and awareness events. His plan is to return home to Texas sometime around the first of August.

Everywhere he goes, he will talk about Sophia, and how her life was cut short by the devastating disease. His face lights up when he tells about their first meeting and the life they built together.

“I was a manager at the time for a large tire chain, and I needed a place to have a big meeting,” he recalled. “I walked into this hotel, and she was the catering manager. I liked what I saw, and the next day, I had a dozen roses sent over. But I didn’t hear anything from her that whole day. So that night I was sitting at my favorite place having dinner and a drink, and in walks this guy with a huge teddy bear and flowers from her. We got married four and a half months later and had three kids — bing, bing, bing. ... I used to say she caught me at a weak moment.”

The Smiths’ three children — Jeff, Zach and Karen — are now all in their 20s. Randy incorporated the Avon Enterprise, naming it Sophia Inc., and Karen is involved in the running of it. Zach runs the mortgage business. Randy still has his fingers in both enterprises — although he hardly fits the image of an Avon lady, he admitted with a laugh. But he wants to continue the legacy that Sophia left behind.

Randy describes Sophia as a woman with a big heart, a passion to help others, “a spitfire” and someone that “the Energizer bunny could learn from.” But with the ALS diagnosis, both their lives were changed as her keen mind and bubbly spirit became trapped in a non-functioning body and Randy became her chief caregiver.

“When you watch someone you dearly love, your soulmate, be trapped in her mind, what you realize is what‘s important in life, and that’s to live life every day,” Randy reflected. “You just take it one day at a time. Just live today, and see what the day brings.”

For more information or to make a donation, go to www.rideoflife.org.

Daily Globe Features Editor Beth Rickers

may be reached at 376-7327.

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Beth Rickers
Beth Rickers is the veteran in the newspaper staff with 25 years as the Daily Globe's Features Editor. Interests include cooking, traveling and beer tasting and making with her home-brewing husband, Bryan. She writes an Area Voices blog called Lagniappe, which is a Creole term that means "a little something extra." It can be found at http://lagniappe.areavoices.com/.  
(507) 376-7327
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