Taking the long way back

Posted by Janae Melvin on April 4, 2017 in Bicycle, Cannondale, "John Tharp", Ottawa, reunion, University

Usually, when an alum begins making plans to return to his or her alma mater for homecoming festivities the process includes checking flight prices, looking into available hotel rooms and planning the quick trip back for a few days of memories with old classmates and friends. When John Tharp ’66 began planning for his 50th class reunion in October 2016, his travel itinerary included how long the trip would take on his Cannondale bicycle.

An avid bicyclist, Tharp decided a celebration as momentous as his 50-year class reunion deserved to be a special trip. One that would take him 1,148 miles over 13 days, with his wife Nancy following closely behind, driving the “sag wagon” which carried supplies, baggage and other items he might need during his journey. Nancy would drive ahead of him to scout good roads and make lunch. She would pick him up if a storm was ahead and drop him back off the next day at the place he stopped so he could continue his bike ride without missing a mile.

“I thoroughly love riding my bike,” Tharp said. “It’s a challenge. There are more beautiful days than bad days and it’s peaceful and quiet. I whistle at the cows and hoot at the horses and they will pay attention to me. I’ve taken trips where I have biked along railroad tracks and waved at the engineers. I just love to be outdoors.”

His long distance ride to Ottawa began in his hometown of Pan Yan, New York. It took him three and a half days to get to Cleveland as part of the first leg of their trip. He then rode from Cleveland to Ottawa. And this isn’t even the longest trip he’s made on his bike. He’s biked from San Francisco to Boston, a trip that was split into four legs, and from Miami to Pan Yan, which took two legs.

“Somewhere I read a statement by an athlete that said ‘I hate running, but I love having run.’ I love the exhilaration that comes as a result of a ride. I feel like I’ve accomplished something. This is something that I have disciplined myself to do that has an immediate payoff,” Tharp said.

More than 50 years ago, the youth minister at Tharp’s hometown Baptist church loaded up a car full of prospective students and brought them to OU for a visit. He was sold on the school right away.

“I didn’t really apply to any other school,” he said. “State schools would have been cheaper and my parents thought I might choose that route because of finances, but they ended being able to send me to OU. And I’m really, really thankful for that.”
His time at OU was memorable for many different reasons. He was a philosophy major while at OU. The one and only philosophy major at that time. And he was interested in taking a course in acrobatics that was being offered on campus at that time, but it didn’t fit in his schedule. He participated in numerous intramural activities at OU and spent time as president of the Roger Williams Club. He played on the tennis team for a short while but admitted there wasn’t much of a team at that time. One distinction he’s proud of – never being cut from the football team.

“I played a modest role on the team,” Tharp said. “I was able to get in during some JV games, but that was about it. As a freshman, I weighed 145 pounds and played tackle, which meant I got killed every game. I went to coach Bill Boucek and asked him what I could do to improve. He gave me 15 exercises and I did those faithfully. I worked out at the gym and did everything that was asked of my by coach. By the end of my sophomore year, I was 175 pounds. Coach Boucek came into the weightlifting room and I was working out and he said ‘You’re looking good’. That’s all I needed to hear. I felt really good about myself after that.”

Today, Tharp is retired after spending the past 41 years in full time Baptist ministry. But his conversations with God continue each time he is on his bike.

“My inner dialogue while I’m riding is with the Lord. Sometimes I may be talking to Him, other times I’m arguing with Him. One of the things I’m really interested in is how God relates to the physical universe. I am who I am but what does that have to do with the physical universe? When I look into the sky and see the dark space, I have to realize that it goes on forever and never stops. That’s a little spooky to be honest. I love experiencing reality and that is why I love to be outdoors. While I’m riding a bike, I’m experiencing the earth. Any honest religious person would have to say they experience the world in someway. The more I can experience God’s earth and God’s people, I will have experienced God more intimately.”

While Tharp has returned to OU sporadically over the past 50 years, he was excited for the opportunity to return to the place that had a major impact on his life and reconnect with classmates and friends.

“I value the experience being here, even after so many years,” Tharp said. “Like-minded students are attracted to a place like OU, even today. They are seeking the type of intimate fellowship that happens here. That’s what makes 50th reunions special. You are only together for a couple of days, but you get to experience that community all over again.”