Annual Legacy Run off to roaring start

Motorcycle riders head north on Rolling Acres Road during the first leg of the American Legion Legacy Run. Riders left the American Legion Post 347 in Lady Lake for the American Legion National Convention.

They came trickling in alone and in small groups, headlights piercing the early morning darkness. Gradually, hundreds of motorcycles filled the American Legion parking lot Sunday morning, in well-ordered rows of squads carefully planned and schooled for safety. Behind their brightly illuminated motorcycles, faces were filled with excitement and anticipation of the 1,100-mile ride ahead, anxious for the 14th annual Legacy Run to begin. The riders, clad in leather and do-rags, would tell you the same thing — they were there to raise money for scholarships that will be awarded to the children of fallen heroes who made the ultimate sacrifice for our nation.

American Legion Post 347 in Lady Lake hosted and was the starting point for this year’s Legacy Run, which is a five-day motorcycle ride that usually raises more than a $1 million each year for the American Legion national organization’s Legacy Scholarship Fund.

More than 400 participants will make dozens of stops in the next five days, including several Legion posts, veterans memorials and the American Legion World Series in Shelby, North Carolina.

Sunday night’s stopping point was Waycross, Georgia, where the riders planned to attend a wreath-laying ceremony with a Gold Star family.

Working his way through the crowd, shaking hands and greeting riders, the national commander, Brett P. Reistad,  said he was anxious to get on the road. He has a motorcycle license but said he doesn’t feel qualified to take on a ride of this magnitude and will be riding second seat on a three-wheeler in the lead. This ride leads up to the 101st American Legion National Convention in Indianapolis, where Reistad will cap off his year of leadership. He said it is a bittersweet ending as he gets a taste of what it’s like to ride in the Legacy Run.

“I’ve never seen anything on this scale,” Reistad said. “We raised $1.3 million last year and it would be great for our 100th anniversary (of the American Legion national organization) to bump that up to $1.5 million.”

Along the route, they will collect funds at various posts, aiming for that total.

The national chairman of the Legacy Run, Bob Sussan, said the total collected so far was $84,986, as of Saturday night.

As they waited, last-minute preparations were completed between greetings and questions about the day’s adventure.

Rain gear came out of saddlebags, and anything that needed protection from the weather was stored in zip-close plastic bags. Bungee cords were in abundant supply, and one bike even had a walker strapped to the saddlebags.

Although many of the veterans involved have a limp when they’re afoot, once they straddle their heavily chromed bikes and crank back the throttle, any encumbrance vanishes.

Rain was definitely on the horizon for the hundreds of bikers huddled in groups representing posts all over the country. For the dedicated bikers, it’s all in a day’s ride. Leather vests covered with patches commemorated their history in the military, and their many exploits riding motorcycles.

Vic Killion rode his motorcycle 976 miles from Terre Haute, Indiana, where he is a member of American Legion Post 328. This is his 11th Legacy Run and he has been assigned the important position as chief tail gunner.

As a Marine veteran and retired law enforcement officer, he explained his position has the responsibility of taking care of stragglers, assisting anyone with mechanical issues and filling out reports for any accidents.

Two riders on their way down to Lady Lake were involved in an accident in Gainesville. They were transported to a local hospital for surgery. Their condition is unknown.

Navy veteran Roy Smith made the trip with eight other riders from his hometown of Louisville, Illinois. He has participated in all but three of the Legion’s Legacy Runs.

“We’re going to run into some weather in northern Florida, then we should be out of the rain for the rest of the week,” he said. “But I’ve been wet before.”

He serves as a road captain for the run.

 He explained the first day is the most challenging as new riders learn where they’re supposed to be and what they’re supposed to be doing.

As the morning sun began to light up the eastern sky, Smith went down the row of bikes and conducted a safety check.

“When we get out on the road, there will be a lot of maneuvering going on,” he said. “By the end of the first day, we’ll be like a well-oiled machine with everyone riding in unison.”

Bob Kiley, the newly elected commander of Post 347, watched from the sideline, regretting that he recently sold his motorcycle.

“Hosting the Legacy Run is a once-in-a-lifetime event for us,” Kiley said. “I’m just thrilled to see it come off so smoothly. We have people who would sell everything they own to go on this run.”

As the eastern sky turned bright red, the moon was setting against a misty sky illuminated by a colorful rainbow, perhaps a good omen.

At 7 a.m., reveille was sounded, colors presented and a prayer was offered for the safety of all involved.

Then, at 7:30 a.m., the air was filled with the thunderous sound of revving motors. In six minutes, the last bike pulled out of the parking lot in what was described as a “very large anaconda,” headed north up U.S. Highway 27/441.

Lining the roadside, well-wishers waved tiny American Flags, and the Legacy Run for 2019 was off and running.

Staff writer Frank Ross can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5367, or frank.ross@thevillagesmedia.com.