Robert Wilhelm - President
Robert Wilhelm, president of Gateway East Trails (GET), said his first true biking experience took place in 2002.
It was at this time two of his nine brothers - Mark and Ed -- talked him into joining them on a Katy Trail ride, with his then 16-year-old son Tim providing SAG support. They rode from Sedalia, MO, to Lebanon, IL, -- about 300 miles in three days -- on the trails and various roads. Prior to that, the longest Wilhelm had navigated his old mountain bike "was about 20 miles."
"It was a lot of fun and a life-changing experience," said Wilhelm, who still admitted he needed a month to recover. "But that is when I really took up biking."
Soon thereafter Wilhelm purchased his first "real" bike, a Trek 7500 FX Hybrid. He really has not stopped cycling since. The 58-year-old now rides around 2,000 miles a year for "relaxation and exercise." His "relaxing Sunday ride" is biking from Lebanon to Breese, IL, a good 50-mile round-trip jaunt.
"I ride a combination of country roads and trails, but I especially enjoy the trails," said Wilhelm, principal of Wilhelm Construction Company, LLC, a family-owned remodeling and construction business located in Lebanon. "I believe biking is a great way to relax, get exercise, develop friendships, and stay healthy."
Staying alive on a bike was his first concern being raised on a farm along with 12 siblings. Learning how to ride a bike consisted of getting on the old red family bike and being pushed by an older brother down a grassy slope in the big side yard.
"I rode until I crashed which was initially about five feet," laughed Wilhelm. "I then shook off the fall, got some pointers from my brother, walked back to the starting spot, and waited for another push. My brother said I officially knew how to ride when I made it all the way to the bottom of the slope and ran into the side of the barn. Turning and braking were optional and I was to learn those skills on my own."
He added, "In those days every farm house had dogs that chased us as we rode by so riding around the country block could prove to be quite an adventure."
Six years after his first Katy Trail experience, Wilhelm and his brother Mark thought it would be a great idea to have bicycling and walking routes and trails in Lebanon and neighboring cities, all joining together. Unfortunately, their "dream" did not take off quickly. The conversation between the two brothers took place in 2008, two years before GET finally took hold.
"We dropped the idea many times," admitted Wilhelm, especially when he and his brother tried hard to get support from community folk.
The idea of creating bike and walking trails was still in the back of Wilhelm's mind when John West, who was then running for a St. Clair County Board position, knocked on the front door of the Wilhelms' residence. At the time, West was campaigning, looking to gain votes as well as insight as to what county residents wanted. His ears were open.
"Yes, he came out of the blue," said Wilhelm of West. "I was surprised. We chatted for a while. When he asked if I had any comments about anything, I told him I really had nothing."
The light bulb went on, however, when West began heading back to his car.
"When he was walking away, I turned around and said, 'Hey, I do have one thing,'" said Wilhelm. "I brought up the bike trails. I remember John's face lit up and he said, 'Really? I am an advocate of biking/pedestrian trails.'"
Not too long thereafter, out of the blue - again - came a call from friend George Fero, who would eventually become GET's vice president.
"He [Fero] said, 'Robert, I'm ready to work on those bike trails," remembered Wilhem, the fifth oldest of nine brothers, five of which work together for the family construction company. "I said surely that was a sign from God now!"
Wilhelm said he became an advocate of building and interconnecting the trail system for the safety of pedestrians, bikers, and drivers. He wants others to be able to share in this experience and have a safer way to travel "and that is what Gateway East Trails is all about."
"Our annual ride (Tour de Stooges) is our main fundraiser and helps support this cause," said Wilhelm.