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Bridge rededication honors Bob Watts’ relentless activism for bicyclists

Updated: 2013-09-24T19:57:47Z

By BETH LIPOFF

Special to The Star

Friends of late bicycling advocate Bob Watts say he would have loved to see the bicycle and pedestrian path added to the Heart of America Bridge three years ago.

Although Watts, who died in 2006, never got to see the bridge addition for which he campaigned, on Friday afternoon, the Missouri Department of Transportation rededicated it in his honor.

About 90 people gathered for a ceremony just north of the bridge’s entrance in North Kansas City. Speakers included Watts’ son Dennis, former Liberty mayor Bob Saunders and Kelley Martin of the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission.

“He was a very passionate advocate for having equal access for bikes on the road. He fought for many years to get this bridge,” said Helene Miller, who first met Watts at a meeting for the Missouri Bicycle and Pedestrian Federation.

Watts and his wife, Jean, rode a tandem bike all over the country and in Europe, said Dennis Scott, a friend of Watts and former MoDot bicycle and pedestrian coordinator.

“He was a real leader in bike advocacy, and it’s great that he gets this recognition,” Scott said.

In addition to the newly named Bob Watts Memorial Bicycle and Pedestrian Bridge, the Chouteau Bridge also has a dedicated lane for bicycles and pedestrians to cross the river.

Mark McHenry, director of Kansas City Parks and Recreation, said the Fairfax Bridge will be getting a separate bicycle and pedestrian lane area as well. He estimated that bicyclists are about a third of the non-automotive traffic on the Watts Bridge, with pedestrians making up the rest.

Bicycle enthusiasts Dale Crawford and Art Gough were responsible for bringing the dedication idea to the attention of Missouri Rep. Jay Swearingen and former Missouri Rep. and Sen. Luann Ridgeway, who both helped navigate the idea through the Missouri General Assembly.

“(Bob) was the first person I heard in the late ’80s and early ’90s talking about the need for safe bicycle and pedestrian crossings (over the river),” said Crawford.

Gough remembered Watts as a calm and quiet man, who would refer to himself as a “cycling grandpa. He wasn’t one of the Lycra-wearing bicyclists,” Gough said.

Bob Saunders agreed, calling Watts a gentleman.

“He was someone you were always glad to see, even if you knew a disagreement was coming,” Saunders said.

Marlene Nagel, director of community development for the Mid-America Regional Council, said Watts was someone “people respected and looked to for advice.”

A crowd from Watts’ family was at the dedication, and his daughter Sandy Kitahara got choked up thinking of how happy her dad would have been to see the bridge completed.

“It’s really special,” she said. “We see folks using it to get to work. It’s an incredibly important part of connecting the community.”

Watts’ other daughter, Amy Malone, said her dad got particularly passionate about making a safer route for bicyclists after a teacher was struck and killed by a car while riding a bike. She called the dedication of the bridge “incredibly humbling.”

Speaking to the assembled group, Dennis Watts recalled family cycling trips around the area and to other countries. He wore his father’s tie, with a bicycle pattern on it.

“I’m sure my dad would stand up here and say it’s not about him. It’s about us,” he said, referring to the bridge’s usefulness to all bicyclists and pedestrians.

Jean Watts called the tribute to her late husband “monumental,” and said it was a symbol of what one man could do through constant activism. She remembered happy times with Bob, riding a Harley and a tandem bicycle, as well as enjoying their other hobby, square dancing.

Many of the people at the ceremony mentioned Watts’ bicycle shops in Liberty and in Crown Center. Ed Chasteen remembered how Watts built him a bike for a cross-country ride.

“He told me it would stand up to a Mack truck, and I believed him,” Chasteen said.

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