Chris Willis

When he’s coasting downhill and has a chance to catch his breath, Chris Willis, ’93 MA ’96, sometimes reflects on why he’s bicycling cross-country nearly 4,300 miles over the course of 57 days.

Willis’ goal is to raise $51,000 for public education—$1,000 for each of the 51 school districts he plans to stay in during his transcontinental journey that began June 7 in Washington state and will end in Maine on August 2.

Willis is an associate professor in Bowling Green State University’s College of Education and Human Development and has spent his career in public education after receiving a bachelor’s degree in Mathematics and a master’s in Educational Leadership from Ball State.

“There is an overwhelming sense of gratitude within me towards those who commit their lives to public education,” he said. “Every day, I am motivated by the dedication that public school educators have for their students.”

Chris Willis
Photos by: Craig Bell/Bowling Green State University

He knows the money he’s raising through his Facebook page, Pedal for Public Schools, is not going to solve any budget problems for the school districts on his stops. But it was important for him to show his support and encourage others to do the same through their donations.

The donations have “no strings attached,” he said. Possible uses could be a speaker for students, help with classroom supplies, or to show teacher appreciation.

“We’ve just come through this global pandemic and watched what public schools have done to support families, to support kids, and to support communities,” Willis said. “This is a chance to say thanks for the public good that public schools do every day to move their local communities forward and make an impact on their lives.”

A family tradition

It’s also a tribute to his family. “From my grandparents’ generation to my kids’ generation, my family has between 250 and 300 years of public school service.”

Willis’ deep appreciation of public education includes his Ball State experience.

With his brothers, sisters, and other family members having gone here, Ball State was an obvious college choice. An especially memorable experience for Willis was in 1990 when the men’s basketball team reached the Sweet Sixteen NCAA Division I Tournament. “The Village was rocking during those games.”

Academically, he counts several influences, including English Professor Frances Rippy, who was Willis’ Honors College Humanities professor. “She always called us Mr. or Ms. and said as college students we were adults and should be treated as such.” He also credits Mathematics professors such as John Emert, now also dean of the Honors College, who helped him see “not only the boundlessness of math as a subject but of the possibilities that exist if we allow ourselves to be open to new and radical ideas.”

After teaching, he decided on a career in school administration, and returned to Ball State for his master’s degree. He had rewarding years as principal of Zionsville Community High Schools, one of the highest performing schools in the state, but after receiving a Doctor of Education degree from Indiana University Bloomington, he decided to pursue a career in higher education.

A stop in Indiana

Photos by: Craig Ball/Bowling Green State University

In a sense, his bicycle trek across the country is a tribute to his own experience in public education as both a learner and teacher. The 51 school districts where he’ll be stopping “range from big city districts to super small rural districts to comfortably situated suburban districts. What they all have in common is they are filled with educators dedicated to helping the children of those communities.”

Along on the trip is his college-aged son, George, who is driving gear from point to point.

One of his planned stops, Willis confirmed, is Indiana, in the Fort Wayne area, where he’ll spend the night with a one his former college roommates.

To raise interest in his trip and garner donations for his cause, Willis is making regular social media posts about his progress, which also can be followed on a digital map.

On June 14, he posted a touching Facebook tribute to his Aunt Martha for her birthday.

“She taught high school English, Latin, Journalism, and Drama for 42 years,” Willis wrote. “She was a major influence on thousands of students and a driving force in my path to be a teacher. But most importantly she taught everyone that knew her how to be a kind, loving, decent human being.”

Such memories provide the fuel that keeps him riding.