Patricia Starr pedals with a purpose

Patricia Starr pedals with a purpose
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Patricia Starr speaks to residents of the Saunders House in Wahoo on Sept. 2. Starr biked across the country at age 67 and still bikes 4,000 miles a year at age 74. She is also a talented musician. (JACOB HANNAH/Lincoln Journal Star)

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  • Patricia Starr
  • Patricia Starr

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For more information about Patricia Starr and her fitness and music education initiatives and her upcoming appearances, view her website at www.patriciastarr.net.

She's 74 years old and feels no need to lie about her age; in fact, she spends lots of time convincing people she really is a septuagenarian. Patricia Eliason Starr admits that even she is curious.

Why is her hair still mostly her natural brown?

How does she have the boundless energy it takes to drive a moving van late into the night and pedal a bicycle 4,000 miles?

How has she managed to maintain her hourglass figure and shapely legs free of varicose veins?

"I would like to meet someone like Dr. Oz," Starr said. "I wish someone would step forward to answer some of these questions and hopefully help others who would like to live this time of their lives feeling good and doing all the things they want to do."

Starr does feel good and gets to do the things she wants. That includes pedaling her red bicycle 4,000 miles this year to promote senior health and fitness, and raise awareness for music education. She has logged 1,500 miles so far. Her cycling schedule was interrupted by a move from Santa Barbara, Calif., back to her native Wahoo, where she will be moving into a house two blocks from where she was born. While having 2,500 miles to ride before the snow flies sounds daunting, Starr has no doubt she will meet her goal. After all, in 2004, a then-67-year-old Starr bicycled across the continental United States.

Her love of cycling started when her sister Dana gave Starr a bicycle when she was 9 years old. She promptly rode it into a tree.

As she grew up and graduated from Wahoo High School, Luther College and Nebraska Wesleyan University, music, teaching and other interests limited the time she had to pedal.

"The love of bicycling never stopped," Starr said. " The feeling of the wind caressing my face was always tantalizing. At age 67, I could see the dream forming. I decided to go for it and signed up for a 3,622-mile ride across America. Everyone thought I was crazy."

That's because she didn't have the training that most of the other cyclists had. She had ridden in California's Santa Ynez Mountains, where Lance Armstrong sometimes trained. She was healthy, walked two miles a day and had tons of stamina and confidence.

"I knew I could do it," Starr said.

She chronicled the bike trip in her book, "Angel on My Handlebars." She endured the theft of the van her husband drove to support her on the trip, days of trailing behind the other cyclists and a crash into a bridge railing that made the last 600 miles of the trip very painful.

"I would not even consider the word 'quit' after all the 40-plus days on the road," Starr said. "When I dunked my front tire in the Atlantic Ocean, I knew I had done something truly spectacular that many others only dream about."

Starr went on the trip not just to fulfill her own dreams, but to support the dreams of others. When she was a senior at Wahoo High School in 1954, local service groups gave her scholarships for college. By riding her bike across the country, she could return the favor. Along with husband Gabriel Gonzales, Starr established music scholarship funds in Wahoo and Santa Barbara. Her cycling ventures have raised $36,000 for those scholarships.

Starr is passionate about music education. Music opened many of the doors that she has ridden her bicycle right through. She won the title of Ms. Wahoo in 1954, and has been crowned Ms. Senior California and Ms. Senior Nebraska. She became the first beauty pageant contestant ever to arrive in Atlantic City by bike (yes, she pedaled the 1,400 miles from Nebraska) and had a police escort down the famous boardwalk.

Starr has played piano and trombone in venues from Las Vegas to the Grand Ole Opry. Her performance of "Rhapsody in Blue" has nearly 77,000 views on YouTube. This summer, she performed Chopin live on national TV.

"It was amazing to think I was playing something I learned years ago right here in Wahoo, Nebraska," she said.

Starr treasures her education and her health. She had a greater appreciation for both after she lost her home and all of her possessions in a 1977 wildfire in Santa Barbara.

"The only things that were left was what was in my head," she said.

Starr has shared what's in her head with countless music students through the years. She met her husband when her Cadillac Biarritz broke down and was towed to his automotive shop. She ended up teaching him how to play the piano.

"Every woman worships her mechanic," she said. "He started taking piano lessons from me, renewing a passion for music from grade-school days. We were friends for eight years and then I married my mechanic, and Gabriel married his piano teacher. How romantic is that?"

Gonzales, who is 20 years younger than Starr (no, she doesn't mind being called his "cougar") is clearly proud of his wife. He has followed her on her bicycle journeys and now has followed her back to Nebraska, where they will make their permanent home. People in California ask him why he would move to Wahoo, and he summed it up by saying, "In California, you need three therapists. Out here, all you need is your John Deere lawn tractor."

Gonzales mentions the love, kindness and respect he first saw in his wife and now sees in her Nebraska friends as the reasons he is looking forward to establishing his home and his businesses in Wahoo. The couple are planning to open a children's center in a building they own next to the Saunders County Fairgrounds. The center will house many activities for children and families and feature a 22-passenger train they have christened the "Angel Starr Express."

In February, Starr was named the Nebraska Ambassador for Women in Sports and Fitness. Just reading about her active life brings most people back to the question, "How does she do it?" Starr embraces an active lifestyle and a healthy diet. Her advice to people of all ages is simple: Don't smoke, cut out most sugars from your diet and nix the fried foods.

"These three simple steps can help you enjoy your life instead of sitting in a doctor's office," she said. It amazes me how people often say, 'I shouldn't eat that' and then do it anyway."

She admits that she has had to modify her diet over the years. When she was growing up, she worked at Saunders Cafe in Wahoo, which is famous for its cinnamon rolls and kolaches.

"I had a good diet, but I ate too much sugar, " Starr said. "I either ate like a bird or a horse, and my body was out of balance."

Major surgery at age 35 was a wake-up call. She started paying more attention to her health and discovered she was hypoglycemic. She changed her diet and lost about 15 pounds. Along with diet, she credits exercise and Hanes Alive pantyhose with giving her the body of a much younger woman.

"I have always been a walker — such a simple act that most people can or could do," she said. "The recent bicycling has been a great toner to keep my derriere up where it belongs, and my kneecaps where they should be."

As for her gumption, well, Starr said that comes from her Nebraska roots.

"If you need to do something, just do it," she said. " You would be surprised to find that many people have a million excuses about their lack of success."

Cindy Conger is a freelance writer in Lincoln.

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