Ralph Fisher likes to put his mettle to the pedal
Ralph Fisher rides alone and likes it that way. Hobbled by a heart condition, he doesn’t go as fast as he used to. The retired engineer pedals at a steady cadence he’s calculated to yield maximum efficiency. His obsessive spinning has earned him the nickname, "crazy legs," by fellow cyclists. "It’s easier on the knees," he defends.
Fisher climbed on a bike relatively late in a life filled with challenges, both professional and physical. Since then, the septuagenarian has logged more miles on a bicycle than most people have on jetliners.
Fisher, who lives in Pinebrook, describes himself as quiet, shy and technically competent. He was born in Davenport, Iowa and moved to Cushing, Okla. when he was 11 years old. In school, he demonstrated an uncanny aptitude for math and science. Growing up, he was more interested in designing, building and flying model airplanes than sports. He graduated from Cushing High School and attended a small Christian college in Enid, Okla. for two years.
He planned to transfer to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the school his father had always dreamed he would attend. He set his sights on an advanced degree in physics and hoped to become a college professor. The untimely death of his father forced him to lower his sights. He chose to stay home and help his mother, who was an invalid. He worked part-time at the power company and attended Oklahoma State University, earning B.S. and M.S. degrees in electrical engineering. He taught classes at OSU while earning his master’s degree. While there, Fisher also became a pilot. "Flying lessons were just $5 an hour. I couldn’t afford not to learn," he says.
An incurable tinkerer, Fisher and his college chums built an odd, wheeled machine from scavenged parts that careened down abandoned railroad tracks on partially deflated tires. "We really had some adventures with that machine," says Fisher, "Like the time we came charging up on a trestle that had been demolished. It was a real cliff hanger," he quips.
In 1955, he accepted a job as an avionics engineer with McDonnell Douglas Corporation during the heyday of military aircraft research and development. At the corporate headquarters in St. Louis, Mo., he did pioneering research and development in avionics and optics. Among his early challenges was to develop instrumentation for the F-101 jet fighter to keep it from going out of control in rapid climbs. He holds several patents for sophisticated instrumentation he and his colleagues developed during his 30-career with the aviation giant.
Fisher met his wife, Donna, at work. "She was a secretary at McDonnell, saving money to go to college," says Fisher. "We started dating and had a lot of fun together. What I really liked about her was that she liked to do stuff like boating and flying. Most girls didn’t seem to be too interested in that kind of thing," he recalls. The two were married in 1959 and settled near St. Louis to raise a family. They have two grown children, Jeff and Tom, and two grandchildren.
Fisher never had a problem balancing work with play. He enjoyed flying and boating with his family on the Mississippi River. He tells the story of buying an aging airplane with his boss and another co-worker. "Every time the thing broke we took on a new partner to help pay for the repairs."
He retired from McDonnell in 1986. Restless within a few months, he accepted a friend’s invitation to interview for a position with Evans and Sutherland in Salt Lake City. The emerging company was on the cutting age of computer technology. He took the job.
Fisher then faced the daunting challenge of c
oaxing his wife out West. "She came out when I first got the offer, looked around Salt Lake City and said ‘no way.’" Park City, however, remained an option. "We got a realtor and found a house in upper Pinebrook. At the time it was the highest house on the hill and we didn’t have any neighbors," he remembers longingly.
Fisher continued his active lifestyle in Utah. He enjoys hiking, jogging, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. "I guess the bicycle has always been my favorite though. I didn’t start riding until I was in my 50s and really got into it after I moved out here."
Since leaving Evans and Sutherland in 1996 and surviving a heart attack, Fisher has completed several epic rides. He and his wife have ridden from Canada to Mexico and re-traced the Lewis and Clark trail from Missouri to Oregon, a combined distance of over 4,000 miles. He completed the Lewis and Clark ride last summer after a one-year delay due to a bout with cancer. Fisher rides about three days a week from spring through fall, averaging 30 miles per ride.
Last year Fisher took up jogging again after a 10-year hiatus. "I did the Salt Lake half-marathon last spring and finished in pretty good shape," he says. "I’ve been training through the winter and picked up some speed." The 76-year-old is running a 12-minute mile and hopes to best his 2006 time in next month’s Salt Lake half-marathon.
Fisher’s pet peeve is about Park City’s "overly territorial" people who don’t’ want hikers or bikers near their property. "People get their one-acre patch and they don’t want anybody else around," he complains.
On a recent ride from the International Center to the Great Salt Lake Marina, Fisher talked about his love of biking. "At first I enjoyed seeing new places. We’d go on these little rural routes and along the rivers and met a lot of nice people. I think meeting and talking to new people on the road is the most fun now. It’s a great sport. You’re all worn out afterward and it feels good.
"I don’t mind riding alone it gives me time to think," he reflects. "Most people slow down and visit before they ride on. I try to leave ahead of everyone else and usually come in last, but I always finish." That takes a lot of heart.
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Buses, trains and gondolas doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, but they make up the transit alternatives for the mountain transportation system the Central Wasatch Commission is trying to create, mostly in the Cottonwood canyons.