Riding into retirement

BY Willy Williamson. May 26 04:00 am

If you see Motorcycle Ride for Dad co-chair Kirk Van Alstyne riding off into the sunset on Saturday evening, there’s no need to send out a search party.

Following a 30-year career with the Winnipeg Police Service (WPS), Van Alstyne, 54, officially retires Saturday at the rank of sergeant.

Most recently he was manager of the WPS flight operations unit, overseeing the Air-1 helicopter.

Van Alstyne is quick to thank his WPS colleagues for making his career both interesting and rewarding.

“I was surrounded by an amazing group of people in all the different units I’ve been in,” Van Alstyne, who is especially proud of the time he spent working in the city’s north end and downtown areas, says.

Helping the good people of Winnipeg was always Van Alstyne’s mantra. One particular incident remains at the forefront of his memory.

“Back in uniform 20-plus years ago a young lady had climbed to the very top of the Redwood Bridge and made indications she wanted to jump in the river,” recalls Van Alstyne.

“Myself and my sergeant at the time shimmied up that freezing cold bridge in the middle of winter and managed to talk her into coming down.”

One can’t help but wonder how many lives Van Alstyne and his fellow Ride for Dad organizers have also saved as a result of that annual event.

Together with fellow co-chair Mo Sabourin — the president of the Winnipeg Police Association — and a sea of local volunteers, the Ride for Dad has raised more than $1.5 million for prostate cancer research and awareness in the province.

Nationally, since 2000, more than 300,000 men, women and children have raised more than $18 million to help fight prostate cancer.

The Motorcycle Ride for Dad is led by a national advisory board, the Canadian Police Association and volunteer executive committees in each of the event cities. Its committee includes members of the Winnipeg Police Association and the local business community.

Funds are raised by riders collecting pledges. Non-riders assist the cause by making donations to the event, or by supporting individual riders.

Van Alstyne says although he is retiring from the police service, his commitment to the Ride for Dad has no end in sight. “It has been a lot of work and a lot of fun,” he said, between calls on a cellphone that rings constantly as the ride grows nearer.

“Nowadays I have to write stuff down so I don’t forget,” he adds with a chuckle. There’s no word on whether or not Van Alstyne’s wife, Hyla, has been writing a few to-do lists of her own.

“We plan to do some travelling this summer,” he said, “I’m sure I’ll be busier than ever.”

More than 1,000 riders are expected to participate in tomorrow’s Ride for Dad. If you own a motorcycle be sure to join the fun!

willy@freepress.mb.ca

On Wednesday, local motorcycle enthusiasts will celebrate the amazing life of Manitoba motorcycle legend Joe Sawtus, who died April 21 at age 83.

Since 1970, Sawtus owned and operated Canadian Motorcycle at 981 Main St. Although the business officially closed and the building was sold last summer, the legacy Sawtus leaves behind will surely outlive us all.

“We were dirt poor,” Sawtus told me back in 2008, of growing up during the Great Depression in a two-room house without running water in the Brook-lands area of Winnipeg.

“But there was always food on the table and we were always laughing and kidding.”

Sawtus got his start with motorcycles way back in 1944 at only 11 years old, riding on his older brother Bill’s small British army bike, a Frances-Barnett model. Bill, who was a motorcycle instructor with the Winnipeg Light Infantry Division during the Second World War, was 16 years older than Joe, and treated him as much like a nephew as a kid brother. By age 12, Joe was roaring around on Bill’s massive 1942 Harley-Davidson every chance he could get.

In the spring of 1949, still a few months shy of his sixteenth birthday, Sawtus was hired to deliver parts and packages for Moore’s Taxi — a job that took him to every corner of the city on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. When combined with the expert training he received from his brother Bill, Joe quickly became an accomplished motorcycle rider and racer.

In keeping with his parent’s wishes, Sawtus was the first member of his family to graduate from high school, majoring in auto and power crafts at Tec-Voc High in 1951.

Sawtus was also an accomplished amateur wrestler and trained with the Canadian Olympic team, almost making it to the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia.

Following his wrestling career he returned to motorcycle racing — and worked at a number of jobs, ranging from the railway, to driving a truck, working in a print shop and even a stint as a corrections officer at Stony Mountain Institution.

After quitting his job as a printer in the mid-1960s, Sawtus started a small motorcycle shop on Pembina Highway.

Due to his notoriety as both a wrestler and a racer his shop was popular — business was so brisk he eventually became a Kawasaki dealer in 1967 and bought the building on Main Street in 1970. He was a Kawasaki dealer from 1967 through to 1977. In 1972, Sawtus sold more than 200 bikes and despite not having a cash register, on busy weekends he would sometimes do more than $20,000 in sales.

In those days Sawtus had as many as 12 people working for him. In addition to new Kawasaki sales, the shop also did full service on all makes of motorcycles.

The overhead started to take its toll and Sawtus stopped selling Kawasaki following the 1976 model year. The shop also stopped doing service in 1980. Sawtus had recently focused his attention on the sale of motorcycle parts, accessories, riding apparel and a huge assortment of helmets.

Last fall, Sawtus presented a cheque for nearly $15,000 toward the Joe Sawtus and Canadian Motorcycle Bursary Fund — which will assist post-secondary students of the Manitoba Institute of Trades and Technology’s motorsport technician program with tuition, providing vital financial support to young men and women who share Joe’s passion for motorcycles.

Although Sawtus has few remaining relatives, his niece, Judy Mathieson, said a few family members will be coming in from as far away as Vancouver Island, Halifax and California to pay their respects.

The celebration of life for Joe Sawtus will take place at the Manitoba Institute of Trades and Technology, 130 Henlow St. on May 31.

Doors open at 6 p.m. and the program will begin at 7 p.m.

willy@freepress.mb.ca

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