Alex K.W. Schultz
Special to Colorado Community Media
When Sam Van Why hops on his 22-speed Cannondale bicycle in a few weeks to take on a rugged 45-mile ride, it will be the perfect metaphor for what the Castle Rock resident’s life has been.
The ride won’t be easy. In fact, Van Why may feel like he’s “just surviving” at times as he pumps his legs over and over for nearly four hours.
But the retired college professor, you can be sure, will keep going. He won’t for a moment think about stopping, even if his 74-year-old legs and body are pleading with him to do so. He’ll push and push until he crosses the finish line.
That’s what Donna would have wanted.
On Dec. 8, 2022, Van Why lost the love of his life, his wife of nearly 30 years, to Alzheimer’s disease.
On June 11, he will ride for her.
The Alzheimer’s Association Ride to End ALZ Colorado will start and end right outside Colorado State University’s Canvas Stadium. The route Van Why has chosen will take him south from Fort Collins, back north to Laporte, along the foothills of Horsetooth Reservoir and finally back to where he started — about the same distance from Fort Collins to Boulder.
“Oh yeah,” he said when asked if he’s looking forward to the ride. “Just surviving 45 miles.”
Van Why isn’t a stranger to the Ride to End ALZ — this will be his third one.
He’s also not a stranger to the kinds of trials and tribulations most people can’t even bear to imagine.
In 1992, his first wife, Carol, died of kidney cancer. The couple was married for 21 years and had three daughters together.
Less than a decade later, Van Why’s mother, Lucille, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. She passed away in 2008.
Seven years later, in 2015, his beloved sister-in-law, Bev, succumbed to frontotemporal dementia. A mere six months after Bev died, her husband and Van Why’s brother, Duane, died of Alzheimer’s.
Then, only a few months after Duane passed away, Van Why received the diagnosis he suspected was coming but still didn’t want to hear or believe — Donna had Alzheimer’s.
That was in 2017. She died five years later.
“Duane was an expressive driver, too. I can see him making his way to the front gates of heaven when Donna was on her way in so he could welcome her and show her around,” Van Why said, his eyes watering over.
Van Why and Donna met in the early 1990s through work. She was a patient lady. She was kind. She was generous. She always went out of her way to help people. Those are just a few of the reasons why Van Why loved her so much.
And he loved her to the very end, caring for her in their Castle Rock home from the time she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s until her death.
“Any time she saw somebody who needed something, she wanted to jump in and help,” Van Why said. “I don’t know how many times we saw somebody on the corner with a dog, and she would have me go to the nearest grocery store to get dog food and take it back to them. She was very caring.”
Van Why said he bikes because exercise has been shown to stave off or delay the onset of Alzheimer’s in people who are predisposed to it, because it’s a great social activity, and because it helps him take his mind off the pangs of life, if only for the briefest of moments.
As of May 10, Van Why had raised over $6,000 for his Ride to End ALZ contribution. All the money will go toward Alzheimer’s research projects.
So, why does the septuagenarian keep fighting when so much has already been thrown at him?
“My three daughters are still healthy. One’s in Colorado Springs, one’s in Pueblo and one’s in Las Cruces, New Mexico,” he said. “I have eight grandchildren, and they’re all really sweet.”
On June 11, he will ride for them.
And, of course, for Donna.