Ode to Ed
Chico bicycling advocate dies after a short illness
News of the death of longtime bicycling advocate Ed McLaughlin last Thursday (May 24) affected a good portion of the Chico community, including bicyclists, business owners and city leaders. The 67-year-old McLaughlin, who’d been confined to a wheelchair following a bicycle accident in Bidwell Park, died in his north Chico home about a week after becoming ill.
He had been admitted to Enloe Medical Center on the previous Monday, but the cause of his illness could not be determined, said his partner, Suzanne Hanson.
She said because of wishes he’d expressed in conversations he’d had over the years with her and his family and friends he was brought home on Wednesday.
“We all know he hates being in the hospital and [wants to be] free from the paralysis that has afflicted him for four and a half years,” Hanson told friends via an electronic posting. He died early the next morning.
In December 2007 McLaughlin was injured in bicycle accident in Bidwell Park that left him a quadriplegic. The organizer of city’s annual Wildflower Century Ride and executive director of the Chico Velo Cycling Club, McLaughlin was in excellent physical condition when, while riding with a group of cyclists along Bidwell Park’s Peterson Memorial Way, he was forced into a traffic bollard, an orange-and-white pole meant to control vehicle traffic. The bike’s front forks snapped, and he was thrown head first to the pavement, suffering an upper-spine injury.
McLaughlin needed 24-hour home nursing care from that time on. Though he gave away all of his bikes when he realized he would never ride again, his support of cycling never waned.
Just last month, during an interview in his home, he described the devastation he felt as reality dawned on him following the accident.
“The first thing you want to do,” he said, “and this is apparently a common reaction for those who’ve become quadriplegic, is kill yourself. But you can’t because you don’t have the motor skills to do so.”
Somehow McLaughlin came to grips with his condition and returned to the public life for which he was known during his 35 years in Chico, serving on the board of directors of Chico Velo.
Before the accident he’d chaired the city’s Bicycle Advisory Committee, sat on the Citizens Advisory Committee for the Butte County Association of Governments, been a member of both the Association of Pedestrian and Bicycle Professionals and the California Bicycle Association, and been director of Chico Velo, which sponsors a number of annual bicycle events to promote tourism. He had also served as vice president of the Chico chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, chaired the citizens’ committee for the Bidwell Park Master Plan and been a board member for both ARC and the Family Services Association.
McLaughlin was born in East Orange, N.J., in 1944 and went to high school in neighboring Bloomfield, N.J., where he was, as he put it, a “terrible student.” He joined the Army out of high school and three years later was honorably discharged. He moved to California soon afterward.
“California was the future,” he told this paper in an interview a few years back. “When we moved to Bloomfield from East Orange, I noticed the people there were moving to California—the people we bought our house from, the next-door neighbors. There was that whole California image of beaches, cars, bikinis and the Beach Boys.”
McLaughlin wound up in Santa Barbara because that was where his car broke down while driving from Los Angeles to San Francisco.
He enrolled in Santa Barbara City College and took general-education classes. The GI Bill enabled him to attend school, but he also worked at the local post office to make ends meet. He saved money and a few years later moved to Arcata to attend Humboldt State. In 1976 he got a job offer in Chico to work for the Social Security Administration.
He worked for Social Security until 1983 and in ’84 took a job at the Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. before joining Chico Velo in 1986.
“When I moved here I needed to improve my life health issues,” he said in an interview last month. “My doc told me to clean up my act and get some exercise. So I came over here and started biking.”
He twice ran for Chico City Council, first in 1997 in a special election to fill the seat of Ted Hubert, who’d died in office, and again in 1998, falling short in both attempts.
There was a gathering of his friends at Caffé Malvina the day after McLaughlin died. They discussed, among other things, the irony of his demise—while riding a bicycle.
Russell Mills, a Chico State professor and member of the city’s bicycle committee, said McLaughlin showed a steady improvement over the years.
“At the last Velo board meeting, which was just two or three weeks ago, he was just like old Ed,” Mills said. “Well, old Ed in a wheelchair. But as far as his mind and his interest and his advocacy, it was all still there.”
Mills said he and his wife named their youngest son Ed, in honor of McLaughlin.
“I owe Ed a lot. I worked with him when I was on the park commission. He would always say what was on his mind and piss off a lot of people. But he was always right. I would never speak up like that, but I always appreciated when Ed did.”
Mayor Ann Schwab, a longtime friend of McLaughlin’s, recalled his philosophical nature.
“One of the things he would say was that you need to take some time and look at your life and decide if your routine, your career, your life is in a rut or a groove. If everything is great it’s in a groove. But if it’s in a rut, then you need to make some changes. I think that life in a wheelchair for Ed was a real rut. He tried to make the best of it, but it wasn’t the Ed that he knew and that we knew.”
She gave him credit for helping her arrive at where she is today. “He knew his stuff,” she said. “He helped put Chico on the map. He was a guy’s guy and a lady’s man.”
Longtime political activist Kelly Meagher said McLaughlin helped change this city for the better. “What he did and what he’s done was inspire not one generation but generations of folks that know Chico today as bike city USA,” Meagher said. “We are all very lucky that his wheels touched our ground.”
Former Chico City Councilman David Guzzetti noted McLaughlin’s wicked sense of humor. “He put me in charge of all of the catering for the Wildflower event almost 20 years ago. He was the easiest man to do business with. When I’d come over because I needed a check, he would put his hand over his crotch, grip it and say, ‘I got your check right here, Guzzetti.’ That was beautiful.”
Steve O’Bryan, owner of Pullins Cyclery, mentioned McLaughlin’s approach to politics. “He encouraged people to get into decision-making positions and then just grease the skids for the bike riders. Chico Velo, under Ed’s direction, pretty much got someone on every board and every commission there was.”
Former Vice Mayor Tom Nickell said McLaughlin offered him advice when he ran for and later served on the council. “He was up front,” Nickell said. “He would tell you if you were messing up. He was very honest, very truthful. You knew where he was at all times. He was a stand-up guy.”
Sal Corona, owner of Caffé Malvina, smiled and shook his head when asked about McLaughlin. “Ed was one of my first customers at the old Malvina. The first time I met him we got into an argument about making cappuccinos, and ever then since he gave me shit.” Corona stopped for a moment as if lost in reverie. Then realty crashed back into the present. “I gotta go to the kitchen and cook.” And he walked away.