A old friend returns home


New Member
Apr 11, 2003
Schwinn stolen from 'Bicycle Man' in late 1970s finds its way home

Image: John Eaton was photographed battling the elements with his replacement bicycle during a snow in January 1980. He began delivering packages in the 1950s. (1980 photo by Bill Luster, The Courier-Journal)

Everyone in Portland -- and a lot of people in downtown Louisville -- knew John Eaton, "The Bicycle Man." The guy who lived at 336 N. 23rd St. with his blind mother, Mary Agnes Eaton. The guy who would pedal his delivery bike downtown to work.

It was an unmistakable, fat-tired Schwinn with a big JOHN EATON written on the side, courtesy of another Portland legend, sign-painter Carl ****. It had a quarter-acre front basket, rear-view mirror, a hand-squeezed horn that sounded like an angry goose and a silver bell on the handlebars that Eaton would RINNNGGGGGG as he navigated through downtown traffic.

Eaton was one of those people you don't see in our modern, button-down neighborhoods -- a local character. All of Portland knew and protected him. On Friday nights, he might park his bike outside a Portland tavern and stay a little too long. On the really bad nights, his bike might be impounded -- one of his sisters would go get it.

Sunday mornings -- and he never missed -- he'd be ringing the church bells at St. Cecilia's and passing the collection plate. Monday mornings he'd be back making deliveries downtown.

He had an innocent, child-like air; a fall as a youngster left him with a brain injury and he never got past St. Cecelia's elementary school. In the 1950s he began making deliveries for a Portland grocery.

After that he pedaled office supplies for 16 years for a downtown printing company. When that company suffered financial problems, he got a job burying people at St. Michael's Cemetery. He never liked the job; his father was buried there.

Eaton had four siblings -- two brothers and two sisters. He became especially close to one, Shirley Eaton Silva. He would carry her books to school as they walked to St. Cecelia's.

As his siblings left home, John stayed with his mother. She handled his finances; he helped with the bills -- they took care of each other. So when John's bicycle was stolen from the back of his house in the late 1970s, about the time he got another job with a downtown printing company, the entire family was upset. The bike was part of their Portland childhoods.

"John got another bike in a few months," said Patrick Eaton, a brother, "but it was a traumatic experience."

Mary Agnes Eaton died in 1990. John Eaton stayed in the family home, but was moved to a Clarksville nursing home as his health failed. He died in 1998, and was buried beneath a stone etched "The Bicycle Man."

About two weeks ago, Patrick Eaton received a phone call from a man named Kenny Hoerter, who had grown up in Portland.

Hoerter -- a car and parts collector -- said he had been at a swap meet in the West Wing of the Kentucky Exposition Center. John Eaton's old bicycle was there, and it was for sale.

"I couldn't believe it," Patrick Eaton said. "But Kenny Hoerter kept talking about people we had both known in Portland as kids. … He even remembered John's bike being stolen."

Hoerter explained he was at the meet trying to sell a car when he saw the bike. He had not seen the Eatons in 30 years. "I knew the family had to have that bike back," he said.

Hoerter arranged to meet Patrick Eaton the next day to help him locate the bike among the hundreds of booths and thousands of items on display.

"We even had to split up for a time to search," said Eaton's wife, Vicki.
Portland to Paoli

They all eventually met at the booth of C. M. Gillenwater, a Scottsburg, Ind., swap-meet aficionado. He said he bought the bike at an auction in Paoli some time in the past two years. He said he had no idea where it had been before that but had paid "$200 to $225" for it in Paoli.

"I didn't steal it," he said. "John's name was still right there on the bicycle. … It was an old delivery bike, and people like them."

Gillenwater sold the bike to Patrick and Vicki Eaton for $250. Meanwhile, a crowd had gathered around the bike; the John Eaton bike story was being told again. "Vicki was crying," Patrick Eaton said. "I told her to stop, but there was a lot of guys who were just out there who were crying too."

Last Saturday was Shirley Eaton Silva's 70th birthday party. As family gathered at the Holiday Inn Clarksville for a party, her surviving siblings, as a surprise, hid the old bike -- remarkably unchanged during its long and mysterious disappearance -- in a hotel closet.

At the appointed hour, Silva was led into a room where the bike was waiting.

"Oh, my God … Oh, my God," Silva repeated as she walked into the room. She put her hand over her heart, looked up toward the ceiling, then climbed onto the bicycle.

As the room erupted in a very off-key "Happy Birthday, " Silva reached out and honked the goose horn as an exclamation point.

You can reach Bob Hill at (502) 582-4646 or e-mail him at [email protected]er-journal.com. You can also read his columns at www.courier-journal.com.