Lekisch helped make Anchorage a friendly place for skiers, runners, bikers

Beth Bragg
Peter Lekisch in Moab, Utah, mountain biking and taking pictures.
Photo by George Stransky
Peter Lekisch in his Subway racing suit, Time Trial Texas State Championship, 2013.
Photo by Jennifer Lekisch

The public is welcome at a celebration of life for Peter Lekisch at 3:30 p.m. Thursday at the Dena'Ina Convention Center.

The dress code for Thursday's celebration of Peter Lekisch's life is race-bib optional.

Lekisch, who helped shape Anchorage's identity as a place where recreational athletes can thrive, will be remembered Thursday afternoon at 3:30 at the Dena'ina Center. The Arctic Bike Club, one of many institutions in the city that benefited from Lekisch's passion, is encouraging people to wear jerseys from the Fireweed 400 or other bike races.

Lekisch, who died last month at age 72 from complications following heart surgery, came to Anchorage in 1967 when both he and the city were young. He helped it become a welcoming place for bikers, runners, skiers and scores of other kinds of athletes.

He co-founded the old Anchorage Racquet Club. He co-founded the Fireweed, the state's biggest bike race. He was an elite athlete whose successful effort at age 60 to become the oldest solo rider to complete the 2,980-mile Race Across America was chronicled in the Daily News in all its gore and glory, hemorrhoids and all. The world-class Lekisch Trail at Kincaid Park was built in memory of his son Andrew, a promising skier and biker who died young.

"Peter came to Anchorage when it was still pretty young, before the huge boom, and sort of grew with it, and not just grew with it, but also orchestrated how it grew," said Jacques Boutet, an Anchorage businessman with ties to the various recreational sports.

"Peter's on that list of folks that we will remember for decades to come -- not just because of his own individual accomplishments -- and he was a great athlete -- but also because of his role in making things happen recreationally in Anchorage, or Alaska for that matter."

An athlete, attorney, photographer and fisherman, Lekisch approached his many interests with a quiet passion. While he didn't brag about his own accomplishments, he didn't hesitate to use his contacts to drum up help for projects and events that benefited many.

"He always led," said George Stransky, a friend who helped create the Fireweed 400. "He was thorough and he was persistent and he surrounded himself with good people -- and then he delegated."

Daughter Jennifer, 44, remembers her father helping Anchorage athletes train for big events in a winter city not always conducive for such pursuits.

"In the early 80s when people started to run, he trained with people in the dead of night for the Boston Marathon," she said.

She remembers a couple of decades back when the Lekisch family spent an evening with former Anchorage resident Gordon Godfred, who at the time had become one of the first Alaskans to complete the Iron Man Triathlon.

"We went to his house to watch the tape of the race, and my dad just lit up," she said. "He was really excited that Anchorage was headed in that direction."

His zeal to help Alaskans reach athletic goals was universal. He was as eager to mentor a star like endurance cyclist Ben Couturier as he was to help a fledgling weekend warrior like Annette Cartier.

Cartier worked for 11 years as a legal secretary for Hoge and Lekisch, and during her time at the firm, Lekisch turned her into a triathlete. His generosity was such that in order to encourage Cartier, he gave her one of Andrew's old bikes.

"He gave me his cross-country ski wax when he moved to Texas," Cartier said. "He had a huge impact on me."

Born and raised in Texas, Lekisch retired as an attorney in 2000. He and his wife, Ellen, spent winters in Fredricksburg, Texas -- their home was located near long, flat roads where Peter could train on his bike -- and summers in Alaska.

He played college football at Ohio Wesleyan and tried just about every sport you can think of during his Anchorage days, from downhill skiing to rafting to rowing. He was a monster on a rowing machine, setting a number of the concept2.com age-group records; he still owns the 2,000-meter American record for men ages 70-74 with a time of 7:09.7.

"I've been on a rowing machine since the 80s and I've had some pretty good times on it, but Peter's times are off the frigging chart," Boutet said. "I can't imagine a training regime I could survive to even challenge those records."

Ellen Lekisch said her husband loved to train, and always did so with the intention that his work would culminate with a race or some kind of event. Lekisch was dealing with a heart problem in recent months before his death but was nevertheless training for the national championship age-group time trials in cycling.

Janice Tower, one of Anchorage's expert cyclists, was helping him, just as he had helped her during her early days as a racer.

"Peter was a teacher whose lessons were delivered through example," Tower wrote on Lekisch's obituary at legacy.com. "Be thoughtful, be kind, be generous with your time. Don't do it for recognition but for the joy it brings others. Actively listen. Be there when you're needed. Teach someone how to fish. Then give fish to him/her when they don't catch anything. Work hard. Be a good person."

Dozens of tributes were written on the site, offering a sneak preview of what Thursday's celebration of life might yield.

One of the biggest compliments given to Lekisch came from Dick Mize, himself a pioneer of Anchorage sports. In a 2002 interview with the Daily News, Mize was asked if he had a hero.

"Peter Lekisch is my hero. When Ann and I go out and ride our mountain bikes for three to four hours I feel like I have had a challenging workout. I can't imagine continuing that ride for another 304 hours and 50 minutes with an average of two to three hours of sleep each day.

"Peter is the first 60-year-old in the world to complete the Race Across America as a solo competitor in 12 days, 20 hours and 50 minutes. Peter accomplished this incredible ride on June 29, 2001, after he retired from a very successful career as an attorney. He is not only a talented attorney and athlete, who has competed in football, basketball, skiing and cycling, but he is a real gentleman and one that I admire for his accomplishments."

Reach Beth Bragg at bbragg@adn.com or 257-4335.