When restoring old bikes is a labor of love
T he shuffling gait and shaky hands come from 88 years of living. Still, faithfully, under the fluorescent light, Arnie Colby toils every...
Seattle Times staff reporter
T he shuffling gait and shaky hands come from 88 years of living. Still, faithfully, under the fluorescent light, Arnie Colby toils every afternoon in his workshop by his dahlia garden, stripping off the rust, greasing the bearings and replacing the hand brakes.
This is where old bicycles come to get a second life, he said of the work shed behind his Auburn home.
For the past 13 years, Colby has fixed up nearly 600 bicycles and tricycles to give to needy children in South King County.
"Most kids who get these bikes don't have fathers. If I give them a bike that has to be fixed, there is no one around to fix it," said Colby, who collects bikes from police departments and swap meets. "That's why I make sure every bike is as good as new."
The retired state highway engineer often spends three hours on every bike, painstakingly going over every inch of his handiwork — the kickstands, the tires and the brakes, always the brakes — before walking the finished product out to his driveway where it will be picked up.
Neighbors marvel at his energy. The detail of his work is so impressive that many children don't realize they are riding used bikes.
The Auburn Fire Department will accept bikes for children 10 and under. The bikes must be in good condition. Donors can drop off bikes at the Auburn Fire Department at 1101 D St. N.E., Auburn. For more information, call 253-931-3060.
Those days of having to make do are a vivid memory for him and an inspiration for his charitable work.
Retired since 1976, Colby studied civil engineering at the University of Washington and worked for a railroad, a power-line company and a shipyard before spending 30 years with the then Washington state Highway Department. He was married to his high-school sweetheart until her death in 1987, then remarried 13 years ago to Adele Colby, a widow who had been a childhood friend.
"Retirement doesn't mean you just sit around waiting to die," he said.
He joined several civic organizations, including the Kiwanis Club, and one year members picked up abandoned bikes from the police to give away — but the bikes were missing seats and tires.
Colby took on the task.
Now, he collects bikes that police and road crews have recovered. He also buys beat-up bikes at swap meets for a few bucks — pounding out the dents with his mallet, replacing the worn seats or tires and repainting each bike. He also tries to buy enough used helmets to provide one with every bike.
He has given a dozen bikes to the top readers at local elementary schools. "That was just a great incentive for the kids," said Crystal Morrison of Pioneer Elementary in Auburn.
Other bikes have gone to local churches, civic clubs and the local food bank. Most end up in the hands of kids from broken homes and poor and refugee families.
Sometimes, out of curiosity, he goes to the local gym where his bikes are given to families who use the Auburn Food Bank.
He usually catches glimpses of the smiling children on his bikes, but then sneaks out the back door before any parent can thank him, volunteers said.
"He is just a modest guy," said Auburn firefighter Paul Carolan, who has received hundreds of bikes from Colby for Fire Department charities. "He doesn't expect a lot of fanfare. He takes a lot of his own money [to spend on the bikes]."
Last year, Colby spent $1,700 on bikes and parts, his workshop overflowing with stacks of spare wheels, seats and inner tubes.
Sometimes, Colby forgets he is an octogenarian. He used to test ride his handiwork around the block, an old man on a kid's toy. One afternoon six years ago, he realized, "God, what am I doing out here? I could fall and get hurt real bad."
These days, he just lifts the bikes onto a vise to inspect the parts. The mechanical work keeps him sharp, Colby said. For the first time, he feels he is making a difference.
"Mentally, I feel the same as I did when I was 60."
Physically, he feels his 88 years. Five years ago, he started wearing hearing aids. Two years ago, he had bypass surgery and a collapsed lung.
No matter. Power wrenches and lighter tools help compensate for the lost dexterity and strength, he said.
Two weeks ago, Colby picked up a small, black bike at a garage sale. It took him two minutes to get rid of a squeaky noise by cleaning the back bearings, and another three hours to patch the torn seat, replace the hand-brake cable and the kickstand. Then he shined it.
"I can still do this," he said.
Tan Vinh: 206-515-5656 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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