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Del "Lonnie" Lonnquist - Author - Entertainer - Adventurer
See what other entertainers have said about Lonnie

Houston, Texas Chronicle 

By Leah Binkovitz, 
 February 2, 2015 Updated: February 3, 2015 10:14am


March, 2014 January, 2015

he 80-year-old. The motorcycle. The road.

By the time Del Lonnquist reached Houston in January, he'd been on the road more or less since March the year before. That was the month his wife of 60 years passed away. The month his daughters came to her bedside singing gospel songs in four-part harmony, just like they had all those years before. The month he had to answer, what now?

"I thought, I'm going for a ride," he said.

He hasn't stopped since.

To Minnesota, Wisconsin, South Dakota. Back to Montana for the funeral. More children. More gospel. And then on the road again, this time to earn his "Iron Butt" title, which meant he had to ride 1,000 miles in 24 hours with a witness at the start and finish, plus receipts from each gas station stop to document the trip.

"We all need to challenge ourselves once in a while," he says.

So he started out on a cold, rainy September morning in Helena. It was two months before his 80th birthday. He'd found a veteran Iron Butt rider to serve as the first witness. "I think he thought, that old guy will never make it," said Lonnquist. Somewhere around Bozeman Pass, pressing into the wind and fog as rain turned to snow, Lonnquist thought the man might've been right. But the skies cleared on the other side. He made it to Minneapolis, where his twin brother met him as the witness at the end.

From there, he became a "flower sniffer," the term bikers use to describe riders who meander through trips. He wound to Baltimore through Virginia and down to Florida, sometimes staying with family, sometimes camping. He saw the Orion launch. Took a photo by the sign that marks the country's southernmost point "every motorcyclist's dream." His family followed his adventure through his blog and their Facebook group, "Where in the world is grandpa?"

He left Lafayette in a pouring rain.

Everywhere he went, people were helpful "neat," he says, forever a Scandinavian from Minnesota. "People have just been wonderful." Like the guys at Ace Hardware in Panama City, Fla., who replaced his solenoid free of charge. Or the Wendy's manager in Louisiana who couldn't believe he rode his bike all the way from Montana. "Come in," she said, "I'm buying breakfast." There was just the one grumpy cashier who told him he should be acting his age. "I've never been old before," he told her.

This is his first go at it, being old. His first time in 60 years living without Lois. Once, he entered all his information into one of those websites that then spits out the date you're going to die. "Too late," it told him, "you're deceased." That cracks him up.

Fargo, North Dakota to Helena, Montana
January, 1954 March, 2014

For Joni Rodgers, Del and Lois's daughter who lives in Kingwood, the dream happened the same way every time. She was in the airplane with her dad, the plane her parents bought for a side business taking aerial photographs when she was young. To get a shot, her dad would lean out an open door.

"And he would fall out the door," Joni recounts. But instead of the dream becoming a nightmare, "I would leap into the front seat and pilot the airplane in a big loopty-loop and catch him on the way." They'd laugh together, delighted by the stunt.

"When I told this dream to my shrink during chemotherapy, he said, 'That tells me everything I need to know about your childhood.'"

An incurable optimist. That's the best way to describe her father.

Lonnquist didn't finish high school. When he found out he couldn't be part of the a capella choir, he dropped out. He did some window cleaning, tried to make it in Chicago but that didn't stick. He came back, playing the south Minneapolis bars with his country music band, then hitting the road on tour.

That's where he met her. Fargo, North Dakota. January 25, 1954. It was 25 degrees below. He finished one set and went next door to get a hamburger.

"And there coming to take my order was the most beautiful girl I'd ever seen," he said. 

Lois Smith hadn't finished high school either. She grew up hard in east Montana. Her family situation was bad. Her school was a one-room building on a reservation. By 16, she was out on her own, working to support herself. She made money playing music or modeling for a western-wear store. But she always thought of herself as writer.

That night in Fargo, though, she was a waitress. When her shift ended, Lonnquist walked her home. A week later he asked her to marry him. Three months later she did. She was 18; he was 19. A year later they brought their first child home from the hospital. There were five more kids to come.

The way Rodgers remembers it, their family's life was sometimes hard but always loving. "I look back on some of it now," she said, "and I understand how difficult it must have been for my mom at times because they moved a lot." Adventurous as he was, Lonnquist led his family across the country setting up five radio stations across the Midwest and living for a stint in Florida and Washington state. "There was always something else I could try this, go there," said Rodgers. "He was always a great supporter of the family, the great breadwinner, but he didn't like staying in one place."

Her mother made every place feel like home. When they moved on Halloween one year, she had all six kids out trick-or-treating that same night in hand-sewn costumes. She'd stayed up nights to make them.

Creativity was a way of life. Instruments hung on the walls. The kids were wrangled into a family band something that Rodgers remembers as sometimes fun but still a job, and no fourth grader wants a job. They had uniforms.

Her earliest childhood memory is going to the library with her mother, after dropping off the bigger kids at school. Years later, she realized her mom had been studying for the GED. With six kids and unpredictable finances, there wasn't much opportunity for her to go back to school. So she worked on it bit by bit, earning her college degree over eight years.

After dinner, each kid had to stand up and give a brief talk. You could read a poem, talk about something that happened at school or give a speech on a news story. But you had to do something. For those couple minutes, the floor was yours.

"We were taught that what we had to say matters," said Rodgers, now a best-selling author living in Houston.

That extended to their art as well. Each holiday, Rodgers' mother would let her paint the windows however she wanted. One Christmas, Rodgers decided to do the front door window like a pane of stained glass, with black paint outlines. In the sun, that black got so warm it cracked the glass. "My mom never said a word about it," Rodgers said. "She did not chide me one bit."

Lois's mind was always busy. When she retired from the local newspaper in Montana, she decided to write her own book about the Fort Peck dam, which her father had worked on all those years ago. The dam had been Life magazine's first cover story. No less than Margaret Bourke-White photographed the piece. But Lois felt that Life got the story wrong. In her autobiography, Bourke-White wrote of Montana, "It was stuffed to the seams with construction men, engineers, welders, quack doctors, barmaids, fancy ladies and, as one of my photographs illustrated, the only idle bedsprings in New Deal were the broken ones." In her book, Fifty Cents an Hour, Lois  instead showed the sometimes unglamorous lives of the folks who made the dam.

For the most part, her husband was the breadwinner. But their marriage was always a partnership. "She was just a great partner for him," said Rodgers, "She's the one who anchored him and kept him real and kept him honest. She understood so much about human nature because she had seen so much -- so much humanity, so much human failing -- that she developed a very forgiving view."

She was a fastidious, private woman. When she got sick, sending her somewhere else for care was out of the question. Instead, her husband doted on her. He added a sidecar to his motorcycle; it made the bike more stable. No one rode in it. But it was for Lois.

Her sickness took its toll on everyone. "I could see how heavily it weighed on him and how difficult it was for him," said Rodgers. "But overwhelmingly, the vibe in the house during those many, many months was peace."

Rodgers had a flexible work schedule, so she was able to spend a lot of time with her mom. The two writers learned how to communicate without language. Emotion seemed to take its place. The only reality her mother understood was the one she felt. Toward the end, she started calling Rodgers "Mom."

Houston, Texas to TBD
January, 2015 -

When he's on the road, Lonnquist doesn't listen to music. "I'm 80 years old," he said. "I need to focus."

Contemporary country music disappoints him anyway. "I don't need Sirius XM," he said. "I've got a million memories I can play back whenever I want."

Some of the places he goes, he's been to before with Lois. Others are places they had talked about seeing but never did. "The United States of America is a wonderful place," he said. The sidecar stays empty, weighed down with a 35-pound bag of sand. One of his daughters jokingly calls it his "babe magnet." But Lonnquist always tells people, "I'm a solo rider. I enjoy the company."

His kids worry about him, especially when there's bad weather. But Rodgers doesn't worry too much. She was once told that she had blood cancer and five years to live; she's had plenty of time to think about what matters in life.

"Just to be blunt, what's the worst thing that could happen?" she asked. "He could fly over a cliff on his motorcycle? That'd be awesome: You go out in a blaze of glory. He deserves happiness. He gave everything he could've possibly given."

From Houston, Lonnquist traveled to Roswell, New Mexico then on to Carlsbad. He has plans to drive the coast of California, trusting that the special fraternity of bikers will get him safely on his way. But it's up in the air.

"The ride is the thing," he likes to say. His wife never cared for the bike. She worried about him on it. And eventually, he will have to stop. But for now, the sidecar provides the stability he needs. "Learning to live alone after 60 years of marriage is a lot easier," he said, "when you have a sidecar."

Iron Butt Association sanctioned rides www.IronButt.com