This year’s race will remember beloved Lekisch, now gone
Alaska lost a hero when Peter Lekisch died from complications of a heart procedure that was meant to fix his atrial fibrillation. Word of his passing in late December 2013 hit all who knew him hard.
A successful attorney, Peter is perhaps best known for his dedication to sports and his leadership in shaping athletics in Anchorage.
Perhaps paramount to his accomplishments is the co-founding of the Fireweed, Bike Across Alaska, which has grown from a grassroots effort to a huge, annual event from Sheep Mountain to Valdez that draws nearly 800 riders each year. This year’s race is set for July 11-12, and for those who knew Peter well, it just won’t be the same without him.
Peter enjoyed competition and was involved in sports all his life. He played football in high school and at Ohio Wesleyan University where he was team captain his senior year. He moved to Alaska in 1967 after graduating from law school at the University of Texas, Austin. He downhill and cross-country ski raced, played tennis, and ran marathons. As a masters athlete Peter set world age group records at indoor rowing and cycling.
Peter co-founded the Anchorage Racquet Club so that people who enjoy racquet sports could play year round.
Annette Cartier worked with Peter at his law firm from the mid-’80s until his retirement in 2000. She later assisted Peter as a volunteer for the Fireweed, becoming his right-hand woman in the organization of the event.
“His vision for the Fireweed was to help other people get involved in athletics and especially the juniors, bringing them up to participate (in cycling), and give them the means to exercise,” Cartier said. “It was definitely about the juniors.”
Peter’s commitment to youth athletics was prevalent. For years he sponsored the Andrew Lekisch Memorial Trophy, a traveling honor bestowed upon the top male and female junior road cyclists participating in the Arctic Bicycle Club’s criterium series, and named in honor of his son, who died young.
“Peter knew that competition, whether skiing or cycling, was a healthy, positive activity for youth so he wanted to give them the opportunity to do something that had enriched his life,” said Jim Mendenhall, one of Peter’s Paris-Brest-Paris and Race Across America teammates.
“Thinking specifically about the Andrew Lekisch Criterium, it not only honored the memory of his son but it was a race that spotlighted the junior racers.”
“Peter made sure the Fireweed supported juniors in the Arctic Bicycle Club,” said Fireweed co-founder George Stransky. “hey have all raced for free thanks to Peter.”
Indeed, one of the purposes of the Fireweed as a nonprofit organization is to raise funds for organizations that involve youth athletics.
Peter had a way of making you think that you could accomplish anything on a bike.
“He liked to win but he also enjoyed giving others the opportunity to compete and push themselves,” said Mendenhall. “Without Peter, I doubt George (Stransky), Bob (Voris) and I would have competed in the 1999 Paris Brest Paris. It was Peter who called me in January of 2000 suggesting we enter Team RAAM, after discussing it for 20 minutes I told him, ‘I’m in so let me know about Bob and George.’ He called back an hour later and said they were in as well. Peter pushed us to do it and it was a great adventure.”
Since the inaugural Fireweed in 2003, Peter gave hundreds of cyclists a venue to share his passion for cycling.
“Nelson Mandela had a passion and believed it in his heart – and so did Peter,” Cartier said. “I think it’s true passion. Peter reeled us all in, one by one. Once you get a little taste of it, how could you say no? Everyone leaves the Fireweed in a good state and happy. It wasn’t a race, it was a ride. Peter brought everybody into his world. That’s what we do – we try to get people to have fun with us. Ride your bike, do the tour.”
Peter leaves an indelible impression on many lives that he touched over the years. His legacy as a visionary for sport in Anchorage will live on largely because he leaves the organizations that he helped to create with committed volunteers who are dedicated to his goals. They followed Peter because they believed in him, but Peter led them to believe in the cause.
Peter once declined my request to be in the spotlight of this column. He asked instead that I write about the Fireweed, the volunteers and the racers who made the Fireweed so special. With Peter, there was no ego when it came to the Fireweed.
At a recent meeting of the Fireweed organizing committee, the members agreed that the show must go on. Aid station coordinator Ben Ball raised his hand to carry Peter’s torch.
“The important thing,” Ball later explained to the group, “is to insure we have a great 2014 Fireweed event and preserve a part of Pete’s legacy.”
“Peter always fulfilled his potential as an athlete, as a father and as a friend,” Stransky said. “Peter will be missed but he also will be remembered as our inspiration to live a fuller life in our future.”