Blount Press Row

Uncle Bob’s Bike

Riceville’s Wooldridge honors America’s veterans with every ride
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Todd Wooldridge stands next to his uncle Bob’s Harley-Davidson motorcycle at Green Meadow Country Club this summer. To honor his late uncle, a Vietnam veteran, Wooldridge turned the bike into a rolling tribute to America’s service members. Photos by Jolanda Jansma

By Stefan Cooper
Editor
Blount Press Row

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Wooldridge’s bike sets in front of the club house.

Todd Wooldridge isn’t having the easiest time of it these days.

His knees are giving him trouble. He’s scheduled for replacement surgery on both of them soon.

He injured his foot recently working in the yard. A trip to the doctor revealed a break.

Wooldridge’s daughter, Shana, called early Tuesday. A student at the University of Tennessee, she was out of class early and wondered if her dad felt up to a trip to Knoxville. They could spend the day, grab a couple of subs, take the bike over to the national cemetery and “have lunch with the heroes.”

It was Veteran’s Day.

Wooldridge was on the road in less than an hour.

“I think it’s awesome what he does,” Shana said. “He does a great job of reminding people of the sacrifices veterans have made for our country.”

None more so than Wooldridge’s late uncle, Bob, the inspiration behind one of the most beautiful motorcycles ever to roll down the highway.

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Wooldridge’s work of art began as a Harley Electra Glide.

Motorist honk their appreciation – loudly – as he rides by. Long haul truckers lean out of their cabs and offer a salute. Veterans weep openly at the site of it.

Bob Wooldridge would like that. It means he did it right, Todd said.

Blount Press Row first met Todd “Weirdo” Wooldridge at the Wounded Warriors Golf Tournament at Green Meadow Country Club this summer. That’s where he told us about Bob.

Bob Wooldridge was a Vietnam veteran who, from the time Todd was 8, was more an older brother than uncle. Bob taught Todd to ride. He helped his nephew earn the nickname “Weirdo” from Todd’s mom. When Bob returned home to West Virginia from Vietnam, they were inseparable.

“My dad always worked two jobs,” Todd said, “so I hung out with my uncle.”

Bob was injured in combat in Vietnam, receiving shrapnel wounds from the waist down so sever he was awarded the Purple Heart. When he returned home, the welcome he received, like many Vietnam veterans, wasn’t one of America’s proudest moments. Todd never forgot that.

Bob Wooldridge loved riding his Harley. Todd and he were on the road most every weekend. In the summer, they could be gone for weeks.

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No explanation needed.

“We rode together for 23 years,” Todd said.

In the winter of 1993, the pair learned of a famed road in Blount County at the foot of the Great Smoky Mountains named “the Tail of the Dragon.” The super twisty, 11-mile stretch of US 129 came with 318 switchback turns. They had to ride it. They made a pact to strike out for Tennessee the following summer.

Three weeks before the trip, Bob Wooldridge passed away from complications with diabetes.

“He left me his bike in his will and asked me to spread his ashes at Oak Street Beach in Chicago,” Todd said.

After the funeral, Todd straddled Bob’s black Harley-Davidson Liberty Edition Electra Glide and started home for Tennessee. Todd had moved to Riceville in McMinn County after retiring. It would be the last time he rode his uncle’s bike for a long, long time.

“I rode the bike back to Tennessee,” Todd said. “I cried the whole time. Every time I heard a song, it reminded me of him. I let the bike sit for a year and a half. I wouldn’t ride his bike.”

Eventually, he said, he realized that’s not what Bob would have wanted.

“I knew he wouldn’t want me to just let his bike rust,” Todd said.

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Check out the grenade foot pegs.

A Veteran Day’s parade in 1996 sparked an idea. He contacted a friend, Kenny Hadorn at AirFX High-End Motorcycle Solutions, whose mom had been an Army nurse. Hadorn began with a mural of the Vietnam Memorial on the bike as a tribute to Bob. Auto-cycle Powder Coating in Red Bank did the work on the engine.

“I saw them make a lawn chair look amazing,” Todd said.

Todd generated quite a bit of excitement when he walked into the offices of one of the companies doing work on the bike and asked if a pair of disarmed hand grenades could be added to the detailing. It’s the way he asked.

“I just walked in and dropped them on his desk,” Todd said.

The office emptied in seconds.

“He walked back in and said, ‘Don’t you ever walk into my office throwing hand grenades around!’” Todd said.

The end result is a red-white-and-blue showpiece bike now adorned with better than 400 LED lights and various military memorabilia, only it’s not for show. This is a working bike, Todd insists.

The bike was an instant hit with veterans. To ensure its message was the story, he began by riding it to the national cemetery in Knoxville. That’s where Shana and Todd spent Tuesday afternoon.

“I set the bike up and walk away from it,” Todd said. “When I see a veteran walk up and he starts crying, I know I did something right.”

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Ready for the ride home.

Word spread fast. Soon, calls began arriving from across the country for Todd to bring the bike to a Veteran’s Day parade or lead the funeral procession of a departed service member. Regardless of the location, he never ships the bike, Todd said. He rides.

As a consequence, Bob’s bike has now led more 200 funerals of former service members and logged over 200,000 miles. Hadorn’s mom passed recently. Todd, honoring a promise made long ago, led her funeral procession.

None of it would be possible if his wife, Alice, Shana, daughter, Cheyenne, and son, Shane, didn’t support his efforts, Todd said. He believes Bob would be proud as well.

“I think he’d love it,” Todd said. “Every now and then I can feel him looking down on me and smiling. He was no angel. That’s for sure. But he was a good man.”

It shows.

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