“I’m living proof. My bike and God. I ride it everyday.”
Vern Hall is a former veteran with a passion for wellness and helping others. He cycles daily, works for the Veterans Association, and started a mentor program called Fathers of Diversity. As someone who rides frequently and community leader, Vern was a perfect candidate for Spoke Folk.
By Luke Medina, AmeriCorp Intern
How did you hear about GoBike?
Vern: Well, I had been riding my bike to the VA to do some volunteer work and had run into Rebecca [GObike’s Operation and Outreach Director]! We ended up having a good conversation. She had asked me about my bike and was impressed when I told her I had ridden from Lackawanna.
Are you a veteran?
Yes, I served in the Marines. And I was a presidential guard for Reagan. I was there from ’79 to ’81. I had to be medically discharged.
Has the treatment you’ve received from the VA motivated you to volunteer?
Vern: Yes, they have been great to me when I needed them most. I’ve had multiple surgeries done and had four bouts with sepsis with bad reactions to antibiotics. A doctor told me that if it weren’t for the shape that I was in, I probably would not have survived.
That’s incredible. Can you tell me about how you stayed in shape back then, and how you manage to today?
Vern: Before the infections, I was running 26-miles a day before I got real sick. And I was biking about 50 miles a day if I didn’t run. Sometimes even 60 or 70. Now I stay on my bike, and get up to maybe 30-40 miles a day, maybe three times out of the week.
But I believe staying active did save my life. I learned the valuable lesson of taking care of your body from my grandfather. My grandfather lived to be 100 years old. And he still was biking in his later years. He stayed in great shape. He always did push-ups and sit-ups, through the aches and pains and everything else.
But if you take care of your body, your body will take care of you. It’s just that simple.
Are you from Buffalo?
Vern: Yes, I grew up around Genesee and Herman. My father owned about 27 houses in Buffalo with the majority of them being on the East Side.
It’s interesting that you said you’re from around Herman. Do you have any experiences or memories of when Humboldt Park was dug up for the Kensington Expressway?
Vern: I do remember when that happened. Humboldt Parkway used to be a very, very prominent place for people to live. Like only people who had like, you know, good money lived over there.
I remember that my dad was the first Black person to buy a house on Herman Street. When he went to go buy that house, mind you, having worked at Roswell for at least 10 years, but when he went to the M&T on Main and High street to get a loan to buy that house, the branch manager asked him:
“What does a Black man need with a house like that?”
That was the mentality that motivated the political powers at that time to build that highway. I don’t think they wanted us to have nice things, you know, nice houses, nice neighborhoods.
Do you think the Kensington Expressway had any lasting effects on the city?
Vern: I think that all of the lasting effects were done systematically. Part of the reason why they built that highway. Downtown was never supposed to be anything. It’s what they wanted it to be. Think about our downtown. If you brought a visitor to my downtown, you wouldn’t be happy to take them downtown for any reason, right? For what reason? There’s nothing down there! Except you may go to a bar or restaurant. I know things are changing there now, but it still is short of what it could have been if downtown was cultivated properly during that whole civil rights era.
On top of that, they took the Bills stadium and moved it from Jefferson Avenue, and put it out there in Orchard Park. Why? To keep people out of Black neighborhoods. Same reason why they built a highway through a Black neighborhood.
But in terms of long lasting effects, of course! Look at downtown! Look at our neighborhoods!
In a perfect world, what would you do to improve these neighborhoods?
Vern: I would first fix the missing teeth, meaning the houses that are gone and the vacant land that is there. And I would bring opportunities for gainful employment downtown and in the city. And even though we’re anciently behind on our waterfront development compared to other cities, I would make further developing that a top priority.
What would you do to make Buffalo a better place to ride a bike?
Vern: In saying that I ride my bike every day, I do have to include as well that it is very dangerous.
People do not respect your bike, they will run you over, they will cut you off, many times people have screamed at me.
People will do stuff in their cars just to mess with you or to scare you. If we can do anything to improve safety, that would be great. Something to protect bike riders from drivers. Whatever it is. Cameras, speed bumps, higher curbs, whatever. I want people to be safer.
Is there anything else that you hope can happen in Buffalo to make it better to live here?
Vern: I’m hoping that either with what has already been passed, or things that are on the way to being passed, are things that all people can benefit from. Not just big companies. In terms of the bike infrastructure and things like that. I’m hoping that with the roads and stuff being repaired that the word gets out that people need different things than what the cars need.
Hopefully, we’ll get there. I think people are becoming more aware of the mistakes of the past and are open to new ideas and concepts when it comes to this kind of stuff. But is there any particular note that you wanted to wrap up on?
Vern: I’m living proof. My bike and God. I ride it everyday. I thank God everyday I could always get on my bike even when my knees were bad and my feet hurt. I think that if your mind is in the right place with God, and your body is in the right place with itself, then you’ve done the most important things to have a happy and healthy life.