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A man, a bike and 300 miles

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When Coy Willis rode by bike into Burkesville, Ky., his sights became fixed on a vacant roadside building with “Willis’s Barbque Weekends” hand-painted in black on the side.
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Eighty-five-year-old Coy Willis, right, with his traveling “sidekick” Jack Ferman, 58, of Connersville, have nurtured a friendship for 45 years that has included a feat every five years with Willis pedaling a bicycle to Livingston, Tenn. Ferman follows in a support vehicle.
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Local resident Coy Willis pedaled a bicycle last month from Shelbyville to Livingston, Tennessee, in three days, covering 340 miles.
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Coy Willis made it to Livingston, Tenn. to visit his nephew, Avery Gilpatrick, left, and wife, Liz, right.

By LUANN MASON - For The Shelbyville News

Coy Willis is quite the pedal pusher. In just three days, the 85-year-old traveled a bit more than 300 miles from his Shelbyville home to Tennessee ... by bicycle.

“My real guess was it would take five days, possibly four, but, my expectation was it would take five days,” he said. “It was not a plan. It wasn’t even on the radar to expect to do it in three days.”

This was an important, long-standing feat for Willis, but in this summer heat? And, why was his destination Livingston, Tenn., which is located about 27 miles south of Dale Hollow Lake in Byrdstown, Tenn.?

“There’s more day light now,” he said. “The longer day is more important than the heat issue.”

Willis has made this trip by bike every five years since he was 55 years old, so he has completed seven trips, he said. It’s a trip home.

“I wanted to see what I could do. You have to work hard to achieve something,” said Willis. “I wanted to get as far as I could the first day so I could take it easy the rest of the way.”

Willis was born in Monterey, Tenn. He moved to Indiana with his family from Livingston when he was in the 10th grade, at the age of 18. He struggled with dyslexia, a learning disability characterized by trouble with reading despite normal intelligence, which resulted in his repeating a couple of grades in the early years of school. Well, except for one year in Tennessee that had nothing to do with his struggles with reading. He failed on purpose to be with his brother who was a year younger than Willis.

“The first day of school, he walked into his brother’s classroom and got in line with the second graders and not the third graders,” said Maggie Kissner, Willis’ high school sweetheart from the days the two attended Milton High School, located just south of Cambridge City. “No one seemed to notice, or if they did, nothing was done about it,” said Willis.

“I just always thought I was dumb,” he said. His career resume, however, shows he was far from it. “My real talent was creating,” he said.

Willis has about 45 patents for Alcoa and three or four for himself. He worked for Alcoa Aluminum in Richmond, Ind., using “basic fundamental skills” as a tool and dye maker.

“I went from the aluminum plant in Richmond to Alcoa’s first plastic bottle cap company in Mississippi,” he said. “I was on the ground floor of that production as a technical support engineer.”

Willis said he traveled extensively for Alcoa at that point and “took up karate and bike riding to stay in shape and to have something to do”. After two years with the Mississippi operations, Willis said he was transferred to Alcoa’s plant in Pennsylvania where he assumed responsibilities as a senior research and development engineer.

Bike riding continued to fill his free time.

He planned his first long-distance bike trip when he retired from Alcoa at the age of 55 and returned to Richmond. He pedaled from Richmond to Louisville the first day, then on to Livingston the next day. Willis has ridden to Livingston every five years since then with his “sidekick”, 58-year-old Jack Ferman of Connersville. Ferman drives a support vehicle for each trip.

“Don’t underestimate Jack,” said Willis. “I don’t know how I’d get along without Jack. We’ve known each other for 45 years.”

The two met at Whistle Creek as it ran through Willis’ farm property near Metamora when Jack was 13 years old. “He was trespassing on my farm, basically,” said Willis about the 1973 incident.

“I’m very fortunate to have a friend as good as Coy is,” said Ferman. “You don’t have many friends like this in your lifetime. He’s the oldest and longest friend I have.”

There is nothing more valuable than having a true friend, according to Willis, “that you have no doubt he will be there for you no matter what if he possibly can.”

Here’s how the two made their way to Tennessee:

With his helmet securely fastened to his head, Willis initially started from his farm in Laurel, Ind., on July 23, only to encounter mechanical problems in Greensburg. “I scrubbed the trip,” he said and headed back to where he currently lives in Shelbyville.

“When the first episode was a bust, Tim McKenney (The Bicycle Shop owner locally) got me back on track,” said Willis.

Undaunted, he tried again and left Shelbyville at 6:30 a.m. on July 26 pedaling his 24-speed bike to meet Ferman in Madison, Ind. The route included following State Road 9 South to SR 7 into Madison. The two continued on SR 421, crossed the bridge into Milton, Ky. and stopped at 6:58 p.m. in Shelbyville, Ky., according to Ferman, who referred to the cell phone app, Life 360, that both he and Willis used for directions and to keep track of each other.

“The first day, I went until I was exhausted, basically,” said Willis. “I knew that would make the rest of the days as short as possible.” He pedaled for 149 miles.

According to Ferman, Willis’ top speed was 23 miles an hour when going downhill and he typically averaged 10 to 12 miles an hour.

“It wasn’t dark when I chose to stop for the day. I was just exhausted,” said Willis.

The next morning, the two met at 8:30 a.m. to start out and covered miles of road until 5:30 p.m. where they stopped in Campbellsville, Ky., according to Ferman. “It was 94 degrees when we stopped there,” he said.

A flat bike tire caused a delay to the last morning’s start yet by 12:30 p.m., Willis rode into Burkesville, Ky., where his sights became fixed upon a vacant roadside building with “Willis’s Barbque Weekends” hand-painted in black on the side.

“An old lady was on the porch,” said Ferman. “Her name was Ruth Willis and she had been at Willis’s for 67 years. She ran the barbeque. It’s been closed for about 30 years.”

Burkesville is part of the region Willis said his relatives lived. “I knew it was relation,” said Ferman, who saw the abandoned restaurant first since he drove ahead to insure Willis would be free of danger when approaching a curve in the road. “It’s the only place he’s found Willis’s. She said she was married at age 14 to Roy.”

Willis is certain he and Ruth are related somehow. “We have to be,” he said. “There’s a Willis Road and it’s Willisburg, Tenn.”

At 5:39 p.m. and 91 degrees, the duo pulled into Livingston, Tenn., thus successfully reaching the trip’s destination by traveling 340 miles.

“I only found one relative home,” said Willis. It was his nephew Avery Gilpatrick and his wife, Liz. “They’re almost all gone. I know of only three groups living.”

He said the Gilpatricks were surprised to see him because they did not know he was coming. In fact, nobody knew about Willis’s trip.

“I wanted nobody to know about it if I failed, except for Jack and Maggie,” said Willis. He has three adult children, two sons and one daughter, three grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.

This trip, which he promised himself would be his last, reinforced an underlying understanding about his life.

“Be thankful for being so fortunate,” he said. “Be thankful for my whole life, for everything. I have been blessed with good fortune. I’ve dodged a lot of bullets that could have changed my world. I thank God for that. I’m very blessed.”

After a touch of reflective silence, Willis said, “Who knows, five years from now if I’m healthy and there’s a crack in the door, it might just open.”

Ferman instantly interrupted Willis. “If he’s still going in five years, I will drive him to Livingston. He won’t go on a bike. It will be a legacy now for me. I’ve got all the memories.”