As a teenager, Bill Strickland started working evenings and weekends for Hitchens Cycle Shop, owned and operated by friends of his family, in 1958.
He didn’t know at the time it would lead to decades of bicycle sales and service. He was working for pocket money for a shop that had been owned by a friend of his father’s, Morris Hitchens Jr., who died the year before Strickland started working there.
During the years that followed, Strickland learned the bicycle trade from Hitchens’ father, Morris Sr., who stepped in after his son died to help keep the shop going with Morris Jr.’s wife Florence.
But the man who would eventually call himself Dr. Bike almost wound up in a full-time career in the military. He was stopped when Florence Hitchens Duffett — who looked on Bill as a son — offered to sell him the shop in 1970. Strickland, with one young child already and wife Pat pregnant with their second, decided he’d rather stay in Newfoundland than head overseas with the army. Before then, he hadn’t seriously considered working in the bike shop as a career.
“I’d thought about it, but never to the point of deciding it was what I’d want to do. We sat down and she told me what she wanted for the shop.
“She said, ‘Bill, I don’t want money up front. Pay me off so much a week, or so much a month, I don’t care. I don’t want a big pile of money,’” he said.
They decided on a price, and Strickland got a loan from his aunt and uncle, Irene and Harvey Hogarth, who provided him with similarly generous repayment terms.
“I said, ‘Irene, I’m not going to be able to pay you back right away.’ She said, ‘Bill, I don’t care. As long as you comes down once a month, once a week, whatever it be, what suits you.’”
Strickland elected for monthly payments, which Irene accepted, on one condition.
“She said, ‘OK, once a month. I can’t tell you how much to pay on it, because I don’t know how much you’re going to have. But don’t come down and pay me money and you find out three days later the money you paid me is now affecting you buying some parts.’”
Strickland paid her off — “in record time,” he said — and Bill’s Cycle & Sport Shop, a decades-long fixture on Long’s Hill was born. Strickland repaired bicycles and sharpened skates — Dr. Bike was also a hockey coach who treasures memories of an international hockey tournament he organized for a visiting Soviet Union team in 1992. He couldn’t say no to cash-strapped children, or homeless adults — or charities, according to his wife and daughter.
“There wasn’t one organization, whether it was Vera Perlin or the churches or this child with cancer or the RNC and the fire department — there wasn’t one group that sent a donation letter that he didn’t give something to,” said Rhonda Strickland Reddy, Bill’s daughter.
Strickland’s commitment to his customers made for some long hours at the shop, said Reddy — and demand for the shop’s services during biking season kept Strickland from doing much bicycling of his own.
“Mom used to complain because every single night his supper would get cold. By the time he’d get home, it wasn’t fit to eat. That’s the way it was back then,” she said.
Not that there weren’t benefits when your father owned a bicycle shop.
“He was all the time carting bikes back and forth for all the kids,” said Reddy, adding the neighbourhood children would chase Strickland’s van from the second he’d turn onto their street. “He wouldn’t be landed in the driveway, and there’d be a youngster knocking on the door: ‘This is broke’ or ‘Can you sharpen my skates?’”
When she got older, Reddy worked in the shop herself. “Bill always said his daughter Rhonda got a Bill Strickland Degree in Business,” said Emeline, Bill’s second wife. It was experience she parlayed into a job as the sales and banquet manager at The Wilds golf course in Salmonier River.
Bill’s second wife, Emeline, teared up as she recounts a favourite story about Bill, something that happened when they were dating.
“We’re driving home from downtown. We were down to one of the better restaurants downtown. And when we’re driving home, it’s pouring rain,” she said. “He saw this man over to the right as he’s looking out through the window and he stopped, dead in his tracks. And I said, ‘Bill, you’re hanging up traffic,’ and he said, ‘You and I are full. We’ve eaten. That poor man has nothing.’ And he took $25 out of his purse and said (to the man) ‘Here, go and get yourself something to eat.’”
Last fall, around his 65th birthday, when Bill and Emeline were planning a Florida vacation, he decided it was time to call it quits, and without his own young Bill Strickland to pass the shop onto, he elected to sell the business to Cychotic Bikes nearby on Lemarchant.
Despite being months into his retirement, Strickland’s bike repairman’s eye has stuck with him.
“When we’re on the highway and somebody’s riding a bike, he will make a comment instantly,” said Emeline. “‘The light’s not working on the back. The tires are wrong for this time of year. The man is not wearing a helmet.’ There’s so many things, at a glance.”
Emeline and Rhonda said the biking community will notice the loss this spring and summer as cycling season comes without Bill’s shop there for repairs — and Strickland said the reverse is just as true.
“I’m going to miss it. I already do miss it.”