He did it: John Merrow’s 80 for 80

Retired PBS host raises money for charity with an 83-mile bike ride across the Island.


Updated June 16

John Merrow, a retired “PBS NewsHour” broadcaster, planned an 80-mile cycling fundraiser for his 80th birthday. Merrow had hoped to ride on his actual birthday, but scheduled it for Saturday because of rain in the forecast. When it rained Saturday, he moved the ride to Sunday instead. He named this year’s bicycle-ride fundraiser “My sore butt for your big bucks!”

Before beginning the journey, Merrow said he was “confident” as he looked at his odds. On his blog, he provided insight into his thinking. The Bad: The longest ride he has gone on this year was 36 miles; he weighed 10 pounds more than he hoped to on his birthday ride; and Martha’s Vineyard can be a windy Island. The Good: He would be mainly cycling on flat courses; he would have company for a portion of the ride; and he is stubborn. 

He surpassed his goal by riding 83.301 miles. 

Merrow’s friend, Joe Frelinghuysen, rode 27 miles with him. Merrow’s wife, Joan Lonergan, rode for 11 miles with him, and brought lunch. 

In an email, Merrow suggested donors give to the Island Housing Trust. He recommended giving to IHT since they are “building affordable housing for the Island’s teachers, firefighters, and others who keep things running,” which he believes is “an important issue.” Merrow said he and his wife are big supporters of IHT. 

Those who wanted to donate posted their pledge comments in his blog, The Merrow Report, under the post “Cycling for Cash, Biking for Bucks.” Donors were not restricted to one charity, and could choose which organization they wanted to donate. Other organizations Merrow suggested in his post donors give to were the Education Writers Association, the Hechinger Report, Chalkbeat, Network for Public Education, or a local food bank. 

Merrow began this, as he calls it, “trivial pursuit” on his 70th birthday. He rode for 70 miles in 2011, and has continued this tradition of cycling his age for the past 10 years. Merrow said he thought this was a fine way to have fun while encouraging friends to contribute to a charitable cause or organization. Merrow said the idea is to donate the sum of his age or a multiple of it, such as $80 or $800 for this year. Merrow’s 77th birthday saw a big contribution from his friend James Loewen, author of “Lies My Teacher Told Me.” Loewen had planned to donate to Tougaloo College, a historically Black college in Mississippi. He decided to tie the donation to Merrow’s 77th birthday cycling fundraiser, giving $77,000 to the school. 

Donations were pledged to various organizations for the fundraiser, with $500.80, alongside an undisclosed amount, pledged to the IHT. A total of $944 was pledged to other organizations, such as the Education Writers Association and Planned Parenthood. Undisclosed sums were also pledged, bringing the money raised for different causes to total over $1,494.80. Most of the donors did not post their pledge to the blog. “I have heard directly from friends, family, and others about gifts totaling more than $7,000, including at least $2,800 to IHT,” said Merrow in an e-mail. 

Merrow had another reason for beginning the bicycling tradition besides encouraging others to donate. “I think it had to do with a reluctance to accept my mortality. Recall the great pitcher Satchel Paige, who advised, ‘Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.’ Maybe I am trying to outrun the inevitable?” said Merrow. “It’s a race I will lose, of course.” 

In The Merrow Report post, Merrow said while he is “an aching 80-year-old” from the bicycle ride, he is thankful for the people who donated money. Since he is done with his birthday pursuit, “we can now focus all our energy on saving our democratic republic from the wannabe fascists,” said Merrow. “Onward!”