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  • Writer's pictureJoe Capozzi

Saying goodbye to the late 'Jack the Bike Man' — Celebration of life set for Sept. 19 in West Palm

The late Samuel H. Hairston III, better known as "Jack The Bike Man.'' (EDUARDO SCHNEIDER PHOTOGRAPHY)

A CELEBRATION HONORING the wonderful life of the late “Jack the Bike Man’’ wouldn’t be complete without a few bicycles, even if it is being held at a funeral home.

“We will have the place decorated with bicycles,’’ said Mariano Garcia, who’s helping organize the public send-off in West Palm Beach for his friend Samuel H. “Jack” Hairston III, the beloved community fixture better known as “Jack the Bike Man,’’ the charity he founded nearly 25 years ago.

Mr. Hairston, who died July 7 at the age of 81, will be honored Tuesday, Sept. 19 at a celebration of life ceremony at Quattlebaum Funeral, Cremation and Event Center in West Palm Beach. The ceremony from 5 to 8 p.m. will be held in a building on the north end of Hillcrest Memorial Park at 6411 Parker Ave.

The date was selected because it would have been his 82nd birthday.

“It’s going to be a chance for anyone in the community to come and pay their respects,’’ said Alex Hernandez, executive director of Jack The Bike Man.

Tears will be shed, but the occasion promises an upbeat vibe, which is exactly what the amiable “Jack,” who always brought smiles and laughter to visitors of his popular bike shop, would want.

A photo montage of Mr. Hairston will rotate across TV screens while his favorite oldies rock music is played. Tchotchkes he collected from his many trips to Guatemala will be on display. Soft drinks and snacks will be served, including his favorite pastries from Tulipan Bakery.

And in keeping with the passion Mr. Hairston pedaled into his self-named nonprofit, there will be bicycles — including the Trek hybrid he liked to ride.

“We are going to have a nice foam board with his pictures on it leaning up against the bicycle he used,’’ said Garcia, an attorney who serves on the Jack the Bike Man advisory board. “Jack had two or three bikes that he would use and they will be on display.’’

"Jack The Bike Man" at his bike shop (Courtesy JTBM)

Mr. Hairston was cremated after he died from a heart attack. His remains will be interred at a graveside ceremony Sept. 22 at Magnolia Cemetery in Meridian, Miss., where his father's family is from.

The Sept. 19 send-off in West Palm Beach will give admirers in the community he embraced a chance to say final goodbyes.

“I'm sure there will be some tears there, but I am wanting it to be a celebration of joy,’’ said Bette Hickey, Mr. Hairston's sister, who will be in from Jacksonville to attend.

Mr. Hairston started his West Palm Beach bicycle charity in 1999, repairing bikes for Guatemalan kids on the city’s north end before forming Jack The Bike Man, a nonprofit focused on getting bicycles to people who need and depend on them.

Along the way, he turned into something of a local folk hero on two wheels, a community activist whose bicycle charity became a lifeline for Palm Beach County’s neediest residents.

The charity has had a nomadic existence over the years, moving from place to place as dictated by its limited finances. Wherever it landed, lives were impacted for the better.

"We are always happy to bring a smile to a child in need. This is Elijah who came in yesterday. His grandmother came to us with a heart breaking story and wanting her grandson to have a bike like the other kids in the neighborhood. His family could not afford a bike so we were happy to help!" (2017 FACEBOOK)

He gave away thousands of bikes to underprivileged kids, often through school programs using good grades as incentives. He offered training and employment for adults in need or recently released from prison.

Mr. Hairston once said he could relate to the downtrodden because of his own personal struggles in life, including a bout with chronic alcoholism that prompted him to stop drinking in 1982 and devote his life to helping others.

“He was a rare individual,’’ said Garcia, whose law firm, Searcy Denney Scarola Barnhart & Shipley, gave financial support to the Jack the Bike Man charity over the years.

“He is one of those people who you could say left the world better than he found it through his good works.’’

Mr. Hairston’s early work repairing the bikes of Guatemalan teens in West Palm Beach led him to embrace the local Guatemalan community and take several trips each year to Guatemala.

“I don’t know how much the people in Palm Beach County know, but he tried to set up little Jack the Bike Man programs in Guatemala,’’ said Hickey, who accompanied her younger brother on trips to Guatemala City and Coban.

“One time we were there,’’ she recalled, “we went to a Mayan ceremony to crown the Mayan princess. And the previous year's princess was thanking my brother. I didn’t know he knew her. But she was thanking him because he provided books to the school in her area.’’

At a Jack the Bike Man fundraising gala in December 2022.

When Mr. Hairston died, there was brief consideration of holding his celebration of life at the charity’s bike shop on Claremore Drive. But that was quickly ruled out as impractical because of limited space unable to accommodate the expected crowd wishing to pay respects.

Hickey, who is friends with the Quattlebaum family, arranged to have the ceremony at Hillcrest Memorial Park. The idea of decorating the gathering place, in a funeral home, with her brother’s favorite bikes was a no-brainer.

After all, many of his close friends knew him simply as “Jack, the bike man,” some of them unaware of his surname.

“Bicycles will always follow him,’’ Hickey said with a laugh. “I can just imagine him riding a bicycle in heaven.’’

Hickey, Hernandez and Father Frank O’Loughlin, co-founder of the Guatemalan Maya Center in Lake Worth Beach, will be among those taking the microphone to offer remembrances.

"This little family from East Africa were all born in a refuge camp in Tanzania, now living in West Palm Beach. Jack the Bike Man gave the three girls new bikes and helmets. The boy wants to come back and do volunteer work to show his appreciation." (FACEBOOK 2016)

“We are going to leave it open to anyone who wants to say a few words,’’ Hernandez said.

Among local dignitaries planning to attend is Palm Beach County Mayor Gregg Weiss, who has fond memories of Mr. Hairston.

“Jack hated long pants — he preferred shorts even when wearing a shirt and tie — but he loved helping others,’’ Weiss said.

“Through his nonprofit he gave away thousands of bikes to deserving children. Decades sober, Jack provided opportunities and mentorship to people struggling with alcoholism as well as others in need of a hand up. He will be dearly missed by the ones left behind, including his cat ‘Sprockets,’ who is now living with us.”

Organizers are hoping for a nice turnout on Tuesday.

“We’ve invited everyone we know in the community who might want to pay their respects,’’ said Garcia, who worked closely with Hickey and Hernandez.

“This is an individual we need to honor in some way. We want to make sure we do right by Jack.’’

In the weeks before his death, Mr. Hairston was trying to raise millions of dollars to renovate an old, two-story building his charity had recently purchased with help from a benefactor. His dream was to turn it into a grand community center anchored by the Jack the Bike Man operations.

But the charity hasn’t been able to raise enough money, and it faces a Dec. 31 deadline to vacate its current temporary home.

“It’s a big building, but Jack always had big dreams,’’ Garcia said. “He was really a visionary. There was always something he was doing battle with, all for the betterment of the community.’’

After the celebration of life, and after Mr. Hairston is laid to rest, the charity’s board will face tough decisions about Jack The Bike Man’s next home. One option could be to sell the empty unrepaired building the charity owns and move to an affordable location elsewhere, which would go against Mr. Hairston’s big dream.

“I'm determined to get in that building and I don't want to run out of time,” he told a reporter earlier this year.

At the very least, his sister hopes the community her brother did so much for will never forget him.

“His whole life was focused on Jack the Bike Man,’’ Hickey said. “He has put so much time, energy and effort into making Jack the Bike Man what it is today. I just hope that his legacy will continue. That is my hope for my brother.’’

"Jack the Bike Man' in April 2023 (JOE CAPOZZI)

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About the author

Joe Capozzi is an award-winning reporter based in Lake Worth Beach. He spent more than 30 years writing for newspapers, mostly at The Palm Beach Post, where he wrote about the opioid scourge, invasive pythons, the birth of the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches and Palm Beach County government. For 15 years, he covered the Miami Marlins baseball team. Joe left The Post in December 2020. View all posts by Joe Capozzi.


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