By Louise Witt
Marty Epstein’s funeral was a lot like his life: Big, joyous, generous, and a bit goofy.
There were some great one-liners, a few family secrets, and more than a few tears from the 800 mourners who packed Morristown’s Temple B’nai Or on Monday. Many of them sported bike shirts with Marty’s wacky caricature and the distinctive blue of his Marty’s Reliable Cycle stores.
Even those in black added a touch of blue to pay tribute to the man who vowed to “save the world with bikes” during a 41-year career that included creation of the Garden State Fondo, a cycling event that draws thousands to Morristown every fall.
Marty died on Thursday after a five-year battle with metastatic prostate cancer. He was 69.
After the service, police closed streets so cyclists–up to 300 of them, by police estimates–could accompany Marty on his final ride, to Beth Israel Cemetery in Cedar Knolls. A news helicopter took in the scene.
Marty’s daughter knew what he would have said about his sendoff.
“This is awesome!” Molly Lyristis exclaimed, giving her best imitation of her exuberant dad.
Video: Marty’s Last Ride
A three-foot cartoon poster of a grinning Marty–wild curly hair, wire-rimmed glasses, and mustache–stood at the temple entrance.
“Everybody’s here except for Marty,” said Mark Traeger, who created the iconic logo when he worked at Marty’s shop on Speedwell Avenue. With Marty’s encouragement, Traeger, opened his own bike store in New Hampshire.
Jeff Groman also owes his career to Marty. Decades ago he answered an ad for a bike mechanic. Marty picked up the phone. “I said, ‘Listen I’ll be down there in 20 minutes and will be ready to work. Marty simply said, ‘Okay.’”
When Groman moved to Seattle, he complained to Marty that no bike shop there would hire him.
“He said, ‘You don’t need them. You can do this. Open your own shop. You’ve got this.’ And he was right,” Groman said.
Cantor Galit Dadoun-Cohen described Marty as “a mensch who has taught all of us around him to be kinder to one another, to be better than we thought we could be, to help each other out.”
In his final months, Marty helped raise more than $50,000 for cancer research. He went public with his illness last year, urging everyone to get regular checkups.
A HARD-WORKING GOOFBALL
Marty, a Morristown High School graduate (’67), started Marty’s Reliable Cycle in 1978 after working in the family auto parts business.
He loved zany promotions. There were “commuter challenges” with electric bikes and electric cars, and bicycle art shows, and Friday evening “Critical Mass” rides around the Morristown Green to promote safe bike lanes. Some riders sported white Afro wigs in Marty’s honor.
Marty added stores in Randolph and Hackettstown, and kept innovating. He established helmet safety programs for kids, sponsored the first biathlon in New Jersey, staged the state’s first mountain bike race, backed bike advocacy organizations, and helped start the nonprofit Sustainable Morristown.
Slideshow photos by Louise Witt for MorristownGreen.com. Click / hover on images for captions:
In 2011, he launched the Gran Fondo NJ, now dubbed the Garden State Fondo. Patterned after popular events in Europe, these day-long excursions through the Jersey countryside have promoted the Garden State while helping raise $1.5 million for charities.
Homeless Solutions Inc. has generated $400,000 thanks to the Fondo, estimated its chief financial officer, Laura Lannin, who cycled in Monday’s procession.
Trek Bicycles President John Burke, who attended the funeral, called Marty a “legendary character” whose tireless work has inspired the cycling industry.
Cyclists gave many reasons for joining Monday’s ride. Linnea Hasegawa said Marty supported girls BMX racing when she was a kid. März Sokolska said Marty convinced her she really could tackle Randolph’s hills. David Steel of Springfield credited Marty with introducing him to “the joy of cycling.”
Even in his final days, Marty was planning big things for September’s Garden State Fondo. They will happen, promised Fondo Executive Director Bill Ruddick. “The show must go on,” he said.
Morristown Mayor Tim Dougherty recounted how Marty’s enthusiastic pitch for the Gran Fondo won him over.
“Marty was community,” said Dougherty, fondly showing off a mug he found at home that bore Marty’s logo.
“Money didn’t make Marty happy,” asserted Jesse Epstein, Marty’s eldest son, who vowed to build upon his father’s legacy at the stores for another 41 years. “Having meaningful relationships with people made my dad happy. He loved people. And he loved helping people.”
And “Saving the World with Bikes” wasn’t merely a catchphrase.
“These are the words my father lived by,” said Jesse. “But I don’t need to tell any of you how wonderful bikes are. Most of you already know. I can tell by the funny clothes that you are wearing.”
Over the years, one of the joys of working in the shops, Jesse said, was the “amazing looks” from children and parents upon discovering Marty was not just a cartoon character. Marty’s granddaughter Jodie has had to convince skeptical members of her 2nd grade class, Jesse said.
Jesse also revealed this family secret: Marty was a “horrendous mechanic.” Fortunately, staffers knew what they were doing.
Another tidbit: Marty became “Morrie” for awhile. Jesse concocted the nickname for fun; his mischievous backstory gained traction because “my father never denied it.” Working in the shop at a young age, Jesse addressed his father as Marty because, he joked, calling him “dad” might spur co-workers to “toss me into a dumpster.”
Although Marty imbued his kids with a strong work ethic, he wasn’t all work.
“My dad was a goofball just like me,” said his younger son, Jonathon.
“As his ‘fro went from black to frosty white, there were several occasions when my parents were at a restaurant and a server came from behind and mistook my father for an elderly woman, saying, ‘What can I get you ladies?’ And my father would turn around with a coy smile on his mustachioed face and say (in a falsetto), ‘Well, let me see…’”
Jonathon said his father’s ability to “get stuff done” inspired him to work with InTandem, a New York nonprofit that provides tandem bikes for people who have vision problems or disabilities. “Growing up with a dad that made big things happen for thousands of people taught me how to make a difference.”
Marty’s daughter, Molly, remembered her dad teaching her to ride a bike early on a foggy morning. When she realized he had let go of her bicycle, she turned around to see him in his t-shirt and underwear.
“Given that it was the ’80s, it was probably really short shorts,” she said, to roars of laughter.
Choking back tears, Molly concluded:
“You all got the very best parts of Marty. He thrived in your presence. He was his best self when community and bikes were involved. May his memory be a blessing and an inspiration for you to do the right thing and get on your bikes.”
Kevin Coughlin contributed to this report.