This month marks the 43rd anniversary of Fran Call’s first bicycling journey with the Cyclemates across America.
It was New York or bust.
“The intrepid 15 — 14 junior high students and teacher Miss Frances Call — took off at 7:45 a.m. Friday morning (June 12, 1970) from North Mercer Junior High School for New York City, where they expect to arrive August 10,” the Mercer Island Reporter announced.
One additional student joined the group in Michigan, making the total 16 when they arrived at their destination, “right smack on schedule,” the newspaper reported.
In recognition of her lifelong pursuit of athletic achievement for herself and her community, the Mercer Island City Council named Call the 2012 Citizen of the Year this month.
Call, who will be 73 in July, taught language arts and social studies at North Mercer Junior High, which merged with South Mercer Junior High to become Islander Middle School in the early 1980s.
Before joining the Mercer Island School District, she taught for five years at a Catholic girls’ high school, Forest Ridge. While growing up, she had attended a Catholic school in Bethesda, Md.
Call was born in Washington, D.C., in 1940. Her father served as an officer in the Army and her family moved extensively, living in 17 different houses altogether. Her parents, who eventually settled in Bellevue, were always supportive of her adventures, she said. She has one older brother.
Once a state finalist in NASA’s ‘Teacher in Space’ program, Call would have been on board the ill-fated Challenger space shuttle if she had been successful in her bid. She finished in 11th place, and the Challenger exploded immediately after being launched, killing all seven crew members.
Call’s teaching career spanned 31 years, ending with her retirement in 1993.
“Teaching is in my blood,” said Call, whose mother and aunts were teachers.
Call’s legendary outdoor fitness class was unlike any other. Walking 55 miles around Lake Washington in one day and canoeing around Mercer Island were annual events.
During the same summer that Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, Call took some students on a bicycling trip around the Olympic Peninsula.
“We said, why don’t we go further next summer?” she said. None of them had any summer plans, and she wanted to keep them active.
One student suggested bicycling to Spokane; another said, let’s cross the Mississippi River. But why stop there? They would go all the way to New York City.
It was not, however, a school-sponsored activity. It was an independent venture. Back then, bicycling wasn’t the thing to do like it is now, Call said. Rarely did anyone see a group of youngsters together, and in those days, no one thought about bicycling across the continent.
“When I look back on it, it’s quite amazing that their parents let them go,” Call said.
She chose the participants, ages 13 through 15, based on four criterion — the youth were courteous, careful, capable and determined.
“I refer to these kids as my summertime children,” said Call, who has never married and does not have children of her own.
To prepare for the trip, she obtained road maps with marked campgrounds. Gas stations provided free maps. Then, along the way, the group would ask questions of the locals — which road is better to take? What is in the next town?
The students earned their own money to pay for the trip by holding car washes, baby-sitting and doing other chores. Planning a budget was part of the learning experience.
Call showed them the basics of bike mechanics — how to oil the chain, tighten the nuts and bolts, change a flat tire.
The group set out from the North Mercer school parking lot on 10-speed bikes, each packed with 30 pounds of supplies in canvas saddle bags. They carried tents and poles, sleeping bags and pads, rain gear and water bottles. Everyone had about four T-shirts, two pairs of shorts and a warm shirt for cool nights. Helmets were not worn in those days. They were never accompanied by a ‘sag wagon.’
A large crowd gathered to see them off, and a minister or priest would pray for them.
“When we left, we would always set the time and date of when we would arrive,” Call said.
They never failed to reach their destination on time.
Call was 29 when the Cyclemates embarked on their first adventure, and celebrated her 30th birthday during the trip. Her students bought some champagne, and it became her birthday tradition — something they would never do today.
They ate a lot of peanut butter sandwiches and cold cereal, and sometimes went a week without a shower. If the weather was bad, they would take refuge in a church in a small town and roll out sleeping bags in the hall or the basement, and cook hot food in the kitchen. Occasionally, they would treat themselves to a night in a motel. Often, locals would invite the group to spend the night camping in their backyard, or the group stayed with the students’ relatives and friends who were spread out across the country.
“The generosity of the local folks impressed us,” Call said.
There were a few accidents, but nothing that couldn’t be handled. Some kids fell off of their bikes. But overall, they rode safely. They cycled for five days, then took one day off — sleeping in until 7 a.m. instead of 6 a.m. They would wash clothes at a laundromat.
They encountered extremes in weather — snow in Yellowstone National Park, and 110 degrees in Utah. Riding through the Badlands, they made sure to have one extra drink, such as lemonade, in addition to their water bottle.
“We had to be careful about being hydrated,” Call said.
Other challenges included keeping the bikes working smoothly; finding food and places to camp; riding over mountain passes such as 12,000-foot Independence Pass in Colorado, and climbing a long, long, long way up hills, then riding 40 mph downhill.
“All of us would say we enjoyed mountainous, wooded areas more than the barren plains of the Midwest. Further east, there’s a lot of history,” Call said. They noted where Lincoln slept, and rode through “Paul Bunyan country.”
Every third night, a girl and boy would call home on a rotating schedule. No one had cell phones then; they had to use public pay phones.
For Call, the most rewarding aspect was “returning the kids home safely. The trust their parents had in me … with their most precious possessions,” she said.
Cyclemates II bicycled to Washington, D.C., in 1971 and met President Richard Nixon. They practiced what they would say and do beforehand.
“You shake his hand and say, ‘Good afternoon, Mr. President,’ and look him in the eye,” Call said. “You don’t just fumble around.”
Seventy-five reporters armed with cameras met the entourage at the White House.
“President Nixon shook our hands and invited us into his office,” she said. He was very gracious to them, she added. Each student received a pen with the president’s signature. Cuff links were given to the boys, and the girls received pins, each bearing the presidential insignia.
The next summer, Cyclemates III traversed Canada, riding more than 4,000 miles to Halifax, Nova Scotia. Along the way, they met the governor general, Queen Elizabeth II’s representative. They put on clean T-shirts and visited Rideau Hall, the governor general’s official residence in Ottawa.
The final cross-country trip undertaken by the Cyclemates took place during the nation’s bicentennial. The group cycled all the way to historic Williamsburg, Va., and rode a record-breaking 194 miles in one day. They usually biked an average 85 miles per day.
The Cyclemates made headlines in many newspapers throughout the country. Call would agree to an interview if the reporter would promise to mail 16 copies of the paper home to the parents. Call was asked many of the same questions: Hardest part of the trip? The bicycle seat. How many started the trip? 150, she would joke. Where is your husband? He quit in the Rocky Mountains, she would say.
After the four cross-country expeditions, Call took the Cyclemates on other trips of lesser distances. She led 22 trips altogether.
“Today, we tend to think kids are lazy and feel entitled. We (adults) are guilty because we don’t provide opportunities for them to be adventuresome,” Call said.
After retiring, Call started the Solemates walking group with Mercer Island Parks and Recreation. They meet “rain or shine” every Wednesday and walk three to four miles, then head to a coffee shop.
“In a way, we’re ‘soulmates,’ because we become such a good support system for each other,” Call said. The group numbers in the 40s.
Another group, the Trailmates, takes local day hikes together — Cougar Mountain, Tiger Mountain, Snoqualmie Pass.
Call continues to canoe on her own. She still rides her bike, plays golf, and has a second home in Leavenworth.
“I am grateful that I ended up teaching on Mercer Island,” Call said. “It presented the opportunity to me to present opportunities outside of the classroom for the kids … I was very fortunate that I had cooperative parents who let their kids do these things. I figured these things — if I worked hard enough to prepare — would turn out well.”
She still hears from many of her students, and many Cyclemate reunions have been held.
“They can’t quite imagine sending their kids off to do this,” Call said.
This article is featured in the “98040: Island Summer” magazine, inside the June 26 issue of the Mercer Island Reporter.