St. Louis man on 1,000-mile mission to eradicate polio

GIBSON CITY — Rotary Club meetings in the eastern St. Louis suburb of Fairview Heights are pretty informal. The club meets Monday evenings in a bar/restaurant. Instead of bringing his gavel, the club’s president, Ralph Zuke, conducts the meetings with a marguarita in hand.

It was one of those tasty drinks that led Zuke to propose a unique project for his third term as president — a project he almost regretted.

Almost.

“Our outgoing president was asking me, ‘What is going to be your project for this year?’ As a president we always get to choose something, and normally it’s something local,” Zuke said. “I kept asking my membership, ‘Look, I don’t live in Fairview (Heights); I don’t know all the things here; I live in St. Louis. What do you have that I could do for a local project?’ But no one came to me with anything.

“So about a week before my term started, I saw that last year at this time there were six cases of polio (worldwide). I was shocked, because the last time I was president about seven years ago it was still in the hundreds. So, I had no idea we were really this close (to eradicating polio). So I said, ‘Ya know, I’m going to make (the focus of my project the raising of funds toward the eradication of) polio.’”

Zuke came up with the idea of riding his bicycle from Fairview Heights to Toronto over a 22-day period — each day symbolizing one of the preventable cases of polio diagnosed in 2017.

To make it “a bigger deal” than just riding a bike, however, Zuke told someone, half-jokingly, that he would do so with his Barcalounger-themed “rickshaw.”

“Then the next morning I get a phone call from our incoming district governor, and he says, ‘Hey, I hear you’re riding from St. Louis to Toronto with a Barcalounger Rickshaw.’ I’m like, ‘I guess I am,’” Zuke recalled with a laugh.

At that point, Zuke had to get serious. And he knew he had to get in shape.

After 2,500 miles of training on his bike, the 51-year-old Zuke took off from Fairview Heights on June 1 en route to Toronto, where he hoped to arrive on June 22, in time for the start of the Rotary International Convention a day later.

“The first two days were really rough,” Zuke said. “The first day there was a 112-degree heat index. The first 20 miles we had some shade, but the last 20 miles that day we had no shade.

“And it was about that point I was thinking, ‘Damn marguaritas. What was I thinking?’

“But I made it to Staunton, and the next day we had a marathon ride from Staunton to Springfield, which I think normally is about 62, 63 miles, but I’m not so good with GPS and I made it a 70-mile ride. I keep adding miles, so my official tally keeps going up higher.”

Zuke arrived in Champaign-Urbana on Tuesday night and visited with the Mahomet Rotary Club on Wednesday morning before making it to Gibson City. Zuke spoke to the Gibson City Rotary Club and was treated to lunch during the club’s meeting at noon Wednesday.

“The first two days were two tough days, but after that things have been great,” Zuke said. “We’ve had great weather; we’ve had tailwinds. And I can’t tell you how incredibly supportive Rotarians have been already. We’ve had places to stay; we’ve had meals. I’m having a blast now. It’s like, now I’m in a groove. I’ll make it to Toronto. I have no doubts now.”

Zuke expected to arrive in Gilman on Wednesday night. Future stops include those in South Bend, Ind.; Ann Arbor, Mich.; and Windsor, Ontario, Canada.

When he finally arrives in Toronto, the president of Rotary International, Ian H.S. Riseley, is expected to greet Zuke as he enters the city’s Simcoe Park.

“I’m really excited about that,” Zuke said.

Zuke is raising funds toward polio eradication through his trip — dubbed Ralph’s Rickshaw Ride for Polio — by asking people he meets in person to donate. People can also donate via the Ralph’s Rickshaw Ride for Polio Facebook page and via his home Rotary district’s website, district6510.org.

“Our goal is to raise $22,000. So far we’re pretty close to being right where we need to be,” Zuke said. “I think we’re at about $5,000 right now.”

Zuke said he expects donations to “snowball” as his ride continues, and he thinks the fundraiser will end with far more than $22,000 in money raised. All of the funds go to Rotary International’s polio fund, Zuke said, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has pledged to donate $2 for every dollar raised.

“I feel that you have to be dedicated to something you truly believe in, and I think this will prove I am dedicated to it,” Zuke said. “We are going to be beat polio, and I think it’s going to be very soon.”

When Rotary International started making the eradication of polio a goal about 32 years ago, there were an estimated 350,000 cases of polio worldwide every year, Zuke said. That number was reduced to 22 last year, and as of two days ago there were just nine — eight in Afghanistan and one in Pakistan.

“Nigeria’s still at zero, and if they continue the rest of the year out at zero, they will be certified polio-free,” Zuke said.

“That’s an astounding amount of good that Rotary has done,” Zuke said.

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