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Man embarks on ride of a lifetime (w/video)

By Jennifer Lee Preyss
May 29, 2014 at 12:29 a.m.

With his late wife's 1999 Harley-Davidson to his right and his 2013 Harley-Davidson at his left, Randy Smith stands in the driveway of his Victoria-area home. On Sunday, Smith will take off for a two-month tour of the U.S. in honor of his late wife, Sophia, who died last year after suffering from ALS.

In a quiet master bedroom on the main floor of their home - a few months before Sophia Smith lost her ability to speak - she asked her husband, Randy Smith, to remember their deal.

"Promise me, no matter what happens to me, you'll take that ride," she said, knowing her days on Earth were numbered.

Smith sat on her bed and held her hand, as he did every day since her diagnosis four years ago, and with tears in his eyes, he agreed.

"I promise," he said, unsure of whether he could follow through with his words.

Years before Sophia fell ill with ALS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, more commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease, the Smiths rode their Harley-Davidson motorcycles whenever possible, often with Smith in the driver's seat and Sophia riding shotgun, gripping tightly around his waist.

The pair shared a passion for biker life almost as much as they did for one another.

And they were as much in love on Sophia's last day as they were on their first date, he said.

But running two successful businesses - Smith's mortgage company in Victoria and Sophia's nationally ranked No. 4 Avon sales enterprise - the couple struggled to find time to drive the Harleys across the country.

"We always said when the kids were old enough, we'd ride coast to coast and dip our toes in both oceans," said Smith, who lost his wife of almost 30 years to ALS last summer. "Whenever we'd have a bad day or one of us would get too overwhelmed, we'd say 'Maybe it's time to buy a bike and take that ride.'"

Almost a year after Sophia's death, Smith has decided to take the ride solo.

He departs Victoria on Sunday - a legion of bikers riding alongside him out of the gate - for what he's dubbed the "Ride of Life."

Partnering with Hospice of South Texas, which cared for Sophia in the last months of her life when she was unable to move, speak and swallow on her own, Smith aims to spread the story about his courageous wife from one end of the nation to the other.

On the back of the bike where Sophia once sat, her denim, heavily pinned biker vest will be draped around the leather high-back seat.

"I'm taking her with me," he said, wiping a tear from his cheek. "We did so many things together for the last time in her final months, but this is one thing that she couldn't do."

Now that he's had time to mourn, he's expanding the bike ride to include four corners of the United States, rather than riding coast to coast.

Along the way, he'll stop in cities with Avon districts and ALS support groups, telling anyone who will listen about his wife's heroic and independent life as a wife, mother and businesswoman and Sophia's fight with ALS, a progressive neurological disease that paralyzes a person's muscular function until they die.

Smith said he hopes to spread awareness about ALS and honor the woman who changed his life, taught him to love and exalted so many women's lives.

To that end, he'll also be asking for $10 donations from 200,000 people in an attempt to raise $2 million to complete and rename the Hospice of South Texas' new inpatient center in Victoria to the Sophia Smith Center of Compassion.

"It's a way to pay tribute to her. . Leadership was her passion, and back when she first started with Avon, she showed other women like herself how to start a home-based business with only a $10 investment," Smith said. "She was the real deal. We used to call her the ding-dong lady."

Smith said while he's on the ride, those donating $10 in his wife's memory not only honor her legacy as a woman who lost her fight with ALS, but they also celebrate her life as a strong, independent woman who empowered those around her.

"The quickest way to become successful is to help others become successful," Smith said. "That's what she was about."

Carl Schneider of Hospice of South Texas said it wasn't difficult to support Smith's passion to raise money for naming rights to the new inpatient facility, which will support 12 beds in phase one.

"Randy was clear that he didn't want Sophia's name on a bench or a wing or a chapel in the building; he wanted the whole thing," said Schneider. "He's a contagious personality, so it wasn't hard to get behind this idea."

Smith said there is no room for failure on this venture. He is coming home with $2 million to rename the building, or he's not coming home at all.

"In my mind, failure would hurt real bad," he said. "I have no intentions of failing."

Smith said he knows Sophia will in some way take the trip with him, if only in spirit. And he looks forward to returning to Victoria, announcing to Sophia he fulfilled his promise.

"Courage is when you're scared to death, but you saddle up and do it anyway," he said. "I'm excited and scared . but I'm taking her with me. She'd never want me to do this alone."



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