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Regardless of how many times he’d heard the stories, Jack’s second oldest son, John Newkirk ’83, found them entirely fascinating.
Like his father, John also attended Rensselaer. In 1983, after receiving a degree in electrical, computer, and systems engineering, he returned home to Colorado, founded a thriving computer systems engineering business, and started a family with his wife, Melissa.
The passing of one of his father’s fellow World War II veterans in 2004 sparked a realization in the younger Newkirk that his father, who was now 84, was growing older and would someday be gone.
John was eager to connect with his father as a friend and as a mentor. He decided there was only one way to get to do this: They would recreate the cross-country trip of 1939, riding together on a Harley.
Jack says he felt “flattered that [John] would take enough interest in what I did to want to recreate the trip. I was happy to ride on the back of his bike.”
Once his father agreed to the trip, John started a year of intense preparation for the trip, intending to make his journey as authentic as possible. He bought a 1939 State Farm road atlas he found on eBay and used it to map out a modern-day replica of Jack’s route.
Since a restored 1930 Harley VL was more expensive than a new motorcycle and would probably be unreliable, John purchased a 2003 100th Anniversary Edition black and silver Harley-Davidson Road King Classic motorcycle, which he dubbed the “Blackberry.”
He feared for his father’s safety riding solo for such a long distance, so the pair agreed that Jack would meet his son on the road and would ride on the back of John’s bike for a third of the trip.
On the morning of July 12, 2005, John departed for day one of the long-anticipated trip. Consistent with his father’s journey, John stayed on two-lane highways whenever possible there was no interstate highway system when his father made the original trip and kept his speed at 43 miles per hour, the point at which his father’s Raspberry became dangerously unsteady.
Arriving first in San Francisco, John found no trace of Treasure Island’s former glory. The site of the 1939 fair had little left to offer beyond a collection of military buildings from World War II. Following his dad’s route in reverse, he headed toward the heartland.
In August Jack met John in Montana and the two headed for Sturgis, S.D. Although he was crossing the territory for a second time, Jack found the land transformed and unrecognizable.
“I didn’t remember anything, really. Everything had changed,” says Jack. “The last time I went through [Sturgis] it was just a crossroads. There was a small bike rally happening but I drove right by unknowingly. This time there were nearly 600,000 bikers gathered in the city.”
Stopping at a Sturgis motorcycle museum, the pair stumbled upon a restored 1930 Harley VL a bike identical to the one Jack rode in 1939. While John went to ask if he could take its picture, a crowd of bikers gathered around Jack, prodding him for details about his trip.
According to John his dad got “instant respect and was treated like royalty by all the bikers who crossed [their] path.”
After 1,200 miles together, Jack flew back to Colorado, leaving John to complete the remaining two-thirds of the trip on his own.
John arrived at the site of the 1939 World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows on Sept. 15. The place was desolate and dirty, and John was shocked at what he’d traveled so far to see.
“The place was abandoned,” John says. “Relics from the 1964 fair were rusted and overgrown; papers blew around in the wind. There were no people. There was only me.
John began to recall what he’d seen across the country.“By this time Katrina had hit and all along my trip I saw folks helping fellow Americans. There was pride and patriotism evident from California to New York, and I saw extreme freedom.
Suddenly my sadness turned to fierce pride and I felt great respect for my father’s generation who provided me with the freedom to take this trip.”John is currently writing a book, titled The Old Man and the Harley, which recounts his father’s solo trip across the country in 1939, comparing it to his own journey during the summer of 2005. It is tentatively scheduled for release on June 18 (Father’s Day).
Nearly 70 years later, Jack’s trip across the country on a cantankerous motorcycle has become a lasting family legacy. John says he’s considering recreating the trip in 2039, 100 years after his father’s original journey, and hopes his two daughters will accompany him.
Inheritance is defined as a valued possession passed down in a family through succeeding generations. The Newkirk family inheritance is not a single possession any of them can hold in their hands. It’s an experience. It’s 10,371 miles.
Jack and John are returning to Rensselaer in June for Reunion 2006 this will be Jack’s 65th. No word yet on whether they’ll travel by motorcycle.
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