I don’t think I’ve ever come across a person who epitomizes the phrase ‘appetite for life’ quite so perfectly as Laverne Boethling. She is without a doubt one of the most energetic, dynamic and determined women with whom I have ever had the pleasure to spend time. At 86 years young she crams more activities into her day than most people in their 20s and 30s and does so with such gusto that a conversation about what her day holds leaves you feeling both a little exhausted and slightly inadequate at the same time. Many of us who know and love the Great Western Bicycle Rally are well aware of the fact that for 19 years Laverne and her husband Ralph were the driving force behind the event, and to this day Laverne remains the fundamental cornerstone of the event, the salt on the GWBR pretzel and the icing on the GWBR cake so to speak. However last month, while reviewing the 54-year history of the GWBR, it occurred to me that there was a depth to Laverne that went far beyond her association with the event. I felt that there had to be a wealth of stories and an extraordinary life that I for one wanted to discover more about.
So a couple of weeks ago I spent a delightful 90 minutes on the phone to Laverne and as our conversation danced between politics, Lady Gaga, history, cycling, family and her extraordinarily full life, I found with each passing minute I became a little more in love and in awe of this exceptional lady.
Born in 1930 in North Dakota and raised in Minnesota, Laverne is the grand daughter of Russian immigrants. She was born in the middle of the great depression to parents who were poor and on welfare, and like many others during that period her father struggled to find work. When the WPA was created in 1935 he found employment at The Minnesota Historical Society, which eased the family financial woes somewhat. Despite this Laverne still grew up to be very grounded and astutely aware that she couldn’t just have everything she wanted, attributing her fiscal cautiousness that remains to this day to this tough upbringing.
Laverne was an organizer from a young age, planning and shopping for all the family meals. She tells me how she used to be more compulsive when she was younger but has always been very driven, and compelled to do a good job. It strikes me that failure is not a word that Laverne is either comfortable or very familiar with.
Ralph appeared in Laverne’s life in 1946. Just out of the Navy they met at an indoor roller skating rink in St Paul and fell in love immediately. Two weeks later, sitting outside one day, Ralph turned to Laverne and said, “I’m going to live in California. Want to come with me?” That was the most formal proposal that Laverne ever received, but 4 years later, at the age of 20, she agreed to marry Ralph and recounts how in Minnesota at that time the legal age to marry without written permission from a parent was 21 but her father was initially opposed to the marriage and refused to give consent. Never one to take no for an answer Laverne threatened to go to Wisconsin and marry without the family being present, and so she got her approval and Ralph and her were married in 1950; and so began their 65 year adventure together.
Ralph worked in an auto parts store and, once married to Laverne, built a house in Minneapolis. After a series of miscarriages, they became pregnant with their first child Ralph, then in 1953 moved to California and settled in Playa del Rey to have their second child Julie. Their final move to settle in Redondo was driven by Ralph’s career development. He loved math so the Buick dealership he worked at in California sent him to school to get his diploma and learn accounting. “He was very strong mentally,” Laverne tells me as she described how he juggled work and study while obtaining his diploma and then went on to get his bachelors and an MBA from University of Southern California. He got into the hotel and food industry, working as a finance manager for a restaurant, and finally got his break when he was offered a job working for Jack Wrather, who built the Disney Land Hotel. Ralph stayed with the Disney Land Hotel and worked his way up to Executive Vice President of the corporation. From auto parts store to Executive VP of one of the most successful and well known hotels in the USA!
Laverne was certainly not the type to stay at home and be a kept woman. She also went back to school at age 39 to become a registered nurse. She passed all her exams at the first attempt and took a job at St Centinela Hospital in Inglewood where she turned out to be quite the rebel, successfully campaigning to get rid of the nurses cap (much to the joy of other nurses on the ward). She tells me how she started in medical surgical but got beat down by that as she got too attached to the patients so moved to working ward shifts from 3pm to 11.30pm. Her ability to connect with patients meant that she often found out critical information from them that doctors had either overlooked or simply not been told by the patient.
After 15 years of working at the hospital her love of nursing was overtaken by her passion for cycling and she quit to spend more time bicycle touring with Ralph. During her lifetime so far Laverne has completed countless centuries, 16 double centuries and 2 triples. She has toured in the USA, France, Germany Austria, Switzerland, Italy and Ireland. She rode her last double century at the age of 70 where she turned to Ralph in the last 30 miles and said, “I’m just not having fun any more,” To which he responded, “Thank goodness. I’ve been wanting to say that for 3 years!” Foolishly I question if this marked the end of cycling as a pastime for Laverne to which she responded, “goodness no we still rode 10,000 miles a year, we just didn’t ride double centuries any more!” And ride they did, indeed Laverne still does. They rode the entire perimeter of Ireland (1600 miles) when they were70 and 73 and to this day Laverne will still ride down to Manhattan Beach then up to Malibu with her daughter.
I’m intrigued to discover which, of the thousands of miles she has covered on a bicycle seat, is her most memorable experience. Laverne thinks for a moment before deciding that their decision to ride to her high school reunion in 1994 brought about their most unforgettable cycling experience. They set of on 5th July, after riding a double century the week before as a little warm up to the 2,000 miles they were about to cover between California and Minnesota. Laverne was [ 64] and likely to be riding more miles on a fully loaded bike on one go than most of her class had ridden in their entire lives.
Cycling through Nevada on the way there the temperatures soared to 116 degrees and a car stopped to offer then a ride. Indignant at the mere suggestion that they would sacrifice even a few miles Ralph and Laverne’s response was “thank you but we don’t get in a car. It’s against our religion.” That cycling religion was what stoked the fire to continue their journey after they reached Minnesota. Not content with putting Laverne’s classmates to shame with the incredible journey there they decided to keep going and headed south to New Orleans; a little 2000 mile extension to stretch out the legs a bit more! In total there were gone for 3 months.
Something tells me Laverne would have been able to put some category racers in their place by the end of that trip and she certainly set an example for anyone who thinks age should prevent you from achieving great things. However she tells me “It’s not the glory. It’s the fact that you always made it.” Something about this quote sticks with me. In this age of social media bravado I wonder if people would be more satisfied if they simply concentrated on the journey itself and basking in the glow of having ‘made it’ rather than seeking third party recognition and approval.
Their reason for going to New Orleans is in some ways more memorable than the cycling trip itself, unfortunately not for good reasons. Exactly 10 years earlier Ralph had been hit by a car after stepping off a tour bus that had parked on the wrong side of the street. Laverne was 200 feet up the road at the time as Ralph had run back to return her jacket to the bus. She tells me how she heard the screech of brakes behind her and instantly knew it was Ralph. When they reached the hospital he was left on a gurney in a hallway and kept being overlooked as other, apparently more serious, patients were attended to. After several hours of this Laverne had had enough and demanded that he be seen. Anyone who has met Laverne will know that she may only be 4 foot 11 inches but her small stature hides a character that does not take “no” for an answer. Needless to say Ralph was pretty quickly seen after that and they discovered a femur that was broken in 26 places. “It was so bad they wanted to amputate. Every single small vessel in his leg had been crushed and he needed 9 unit of blood,” Laverne tells me. To a cyclist like Ralph this was devastating news but once again Laverne’s indomitable spirit stepped in and she told the surgeons, “Don’t event think about amputating. You’re going to fix it. We have to go bicycling!”
After 4 major surgeries and a long recovery Ralph finally got back on the bike, shedding tears when he did so. I should mention though that he hadn’t been sitting on the sofa during his recovery. No, he’d only ridden three quarters of the way around the USA on a stationary trainer as part of his recovery!
After hearing this story I understood the impetus to make that journey under their own steam and the momentous occasion it must have been to reach their destination. “I just don’t want to live with regrets,” Laverne says. She still goes back to St Paul each year for her high school reunion although these days she flies there and it’s a luncheon affair where hearing aids are the in-vogue accessory and reminiscing is done via a lot of yelling at each other. “They all want to get home and take their pills and a have a nap,” says Laverne. Forever the dynamo event planner, she turns up with games and entertainment to keep them all engaged and awake after their lunch.
Speaking of events it shouldn’t go unmentioned how much volunteering Laverne (and Ralph) have done over the years. In addition to continuing to volunteer at their great love The Great Western Bicycle Rally, Laverne still volunteers for 12 days straight at the annual Riviera Country Club Golf Tournament. She’s been doing this for the last 21 years, 15 of these with Ralph before he sadly passed away in December 2011. She also still flies out to Hawaii each year to volunteer at the Honolulu marathon (which she has taken part in 15 times).
“It’s about the marks you leave behind you,” Laverne tells me. One thing is for sure: there’s a pretty big Laverne shaped mark already in the world, and she’s not anywhere near done yet.
Unsurprisingly, as we end the call Laverne is interrupted by a maintenance worker who has come to perform work on her condominium building. It turns out she has been president of the home owners association for the last 40 years and despite wanting to step down they can’t find anyone to take over from her. This doesn’t surprise me. I’m painfully aware of the fact that those are huge and daunting shoes to step into … but what a privilege it is to even try.