On most days of the week, it’s not uncommon to see a bicyclist pedaling through Farmington. Frequently, riders from all over the world trekking either east or west across the country ride through town as they are pushing themselves for the experience or for competition.
But on May 31, a lone rider passed through Farmington. He wasn’t looking for the rush from competition, nor was he looking for some new experience. He was riding for a cause and to honor someone very special.
Many may have passed Bill Conner as he rode from Bonne Terre through Farmington, pedaling his way to Fredericktown. But what makes his travels so much different is he is riding to raise awareness for organ donation and to honor his daughter who died tragically from a pool accident.
According to Conner, his daughter, Abbey was a 20-year-old junior at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater majoring in Public Relations, and her brother Austin, 23, were on winter break in January in Cancun, when they both were found unconscious, face down in chest deep water in the resort's pool. Unfortunately, Abbey didn’t make it even after medical intervention.
“Abbey was dead when they pulled her out,” Conner said. “But my son has made a full recovery and graduated on May 21 from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
"They were at all-inclusive resort. They had no money on them, no jewelry. It was a resort where you don’t pay for anything. The last thing my son remembers is being at the bar at the pool and then waking up in the hospital.”
But Conner did say there is a silver lining to this tragedy. His daughter had signed up to be an organ donor – she had been since high school – so she has helped people to live a better life.
“That is just like Abbey,” Conner said. “She has already helped so many people and that’s the positive out of this. She donated her eyes and her tissue and will help 100, maybe 200 people, as a result. I’m proud of what she did.”
Conner admitted he needed to come to terms with his grief and anger, so he chose to get on his bike and ride to Fort Lauderdale, Florida to the hospital that took care of his daughter’s organ donations.
“I originally thought about going to the West Coast. The tissue donation association asked if I would change my route and go to Fort Lauderdale to the hospital that took care of Abbey’s donation,” Conner said. “So, I am going down there and put a medallion on the hospital's tree of life for Abbey.”
Although Conner is just beginning his trek, he has experienced a tremendous amount of support and love from complete strangers.
“Along the way, I am trying to raise awareness about organ donations,” Conner said. “As I go through town or pull into a gas station, people see the sign on the back of my bike with Abbey’s picture and they hand me money. I had one woman at a gas station tell me she saw me on the news and handed me $10. The guy in line handed me $20.”
Conner said people's generosity has not been just an isolated case. All along the way people have been showing him acts of random kindness. Those acts include individuals giving him a lift when he needed it, paying for his hotel room in communities he was passing through and keeping both him and Abbey in their prayers.
“Everywhere I have gone, people have gone out of their way for me,” Conner said. “Total strangers. I can’t explain the love and support people are giving me.”
Although Conner said he is receiving an incredible amount of support from so many people, it has not made his journey any easier - neither physically nor emotionally.
“I know I have only gone 600 miles into a 2,600 mile trip, but I have never climbed so many hills,” Conner said. “Coming out of Hannibal, the 32-mile stretch on Highway 79, I couldn’t go anymore. I balked the last 10 miles. Someone picked me up and took me right to my (bed and breakfast).”
But he says even though the hills are hard and will get harder the farther south he goes, that is not the hardest part of the trip.
“The hardest part is you have a lot of time to think, so staying positive,” Conner said. “Like any father or parent, I have a lot of anger, grief. I start thinking about her while I ride and all of sudden, I just start crying. The toughest part is she’s not here.”
Although along the way, Conner believes Abbey is watching over him and giving him signs that she is still with him.
“I was going by horses in this field, and the whole herd began running with me,” Conner said. “Beef cattle, they don’t run, but beef cattle have run with me the entire length of their field when I have rode by. Once, OK ... but three times. I really know Abbey is around.”
In a short time, Conner is going to experience something more tangible than just a feeling about Abbey’s presence.
“I am going to meet the young man who is the recipient of Abbey’s heart,” Conner said. “His name is Jack and he is 20 years old and a junior in college, just like Abbey. That is the positive thing. It takes some of the sting out her not being here.”
Hopefully, Conner said he will reach Fort Lauderdale by July 10. When he does arrive, he plans to scatter Abbey’s ashes into the ocean.
“She had too big of a personality to throw them into a lake,” Conner said. “It needs to be the ocean.”