By David McCabe
One day in late July, three men from the charity bike ride Pelotonia drove into Gambier on a quiet reconnaissance mission. They were there because Tom Lennox had a problem.
Lennox, a cancer survivor, founded Pelotonia in 2008 and serves as its executive director. Because of full corporate underwriting, all proceeds go directly to research at the Ohio State University’s James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute. The event has raised just under $25 million since 2008.
Still, Lennox felt that after three years, his ride was in need of a new destination. Since its inception, close to 5,000 riders had cycled south from Columbus to the Athens campus of Ohio University.
But there was only one route to Athens, meaning organizers could not offer participants different paths with varying levels of difficulty. Lennox found himself looking for a different college partner and settled on Kenyon as a first choice. In Kenyon, he saw a destination that allowed him to offer his charity’s supporters the best selection of rides possible, while ending the ride in a setting that was “aspirational.”
Lennox often uses that description, “aspirational,” but he will freely admit it’s not a word. It is a concept he learned while leading corporate communications at the Ohio-based Abercrombie & Fitch. “I think it would suggest something that we all want to aspire to be, have or be a part of. When I suggest that Pelotonia is an aspirational experience, it’s something we think involves leaders,” he said. “Kenyon is an aspirational environment. It has a rigorous academic environment. They create a very positive environment for you to learn. People want to go to Kenyon because it’s beautiful.”
Lennox used Denny Griffith, president of the Columbus College of Art and Design, to reach out to Kenyon President S. Georgia Nugent.
“He said, ‘The people at Pelotonia are interested in talking with you, can I set up a call with them,'” Nugent said. She agreed and soon invited Pelotonia representatives to campus for a meeting.
Before he met with Nugent, Lennox set out to convince the chair of his board of directors, Daniel Rosenthal, and Dr. Michael Caliguiri, CEO of the James Cancer Hospital and director of the OSU Comprehensive Cancer Center, that Kenyon was the right choice. They made the trip about a week before the Pelotonia representatives were scheduled to meet with Nugent and other administrators.
This moment, Lennox said, was pivotal in the decision to bring Pelotonia to Kenyon’s campus. The idea of a ride that began at the headquarters of Chemical Abstracts in Columbus, rolled past the picturesque fields that stretch across Knox County and ended with a triumphant entrance into Gambier transitioned from a personal dream to a potential reality.
When participants make that entrance in August, it will be the most visible sign of a partnership officials say will improve the Pelotonia experience and give Kenyon more prominence and visibility in central Ohio.
As Lennox took Caliguiri and Rosenthal around the campus, they quickly warmed up to the proposed route change.
For Caliguiri, who commuted to SUNY-Buffalo as an undergraduate because, as one of 10 children, it was the only way he could afford to go to college, it called to mind a simple question: “Why couldn’t I have gone to college there?” He was attracted, he said, to “the whole feel of the place.”
During the visit, Caliguiri thought of one of his former graduate students, who had graduated from Kenyon and now works at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. “I took a picture of a sign that has the beautiful emblem of Kenyon College and texted him and said ‘You’ll never believe where I am,'” he said.
He got a text back, inquiring why he was at his former student’s alma mater. He responded cryptically, unable to reveal the charity’s plans. The public announcement was far away, but it was clear as day to the three men: Pelotonia wanted its ride to end at Kenyon.
“These guys left with a shine in their eye,” Lennox said.
A week later, Lennox, Caliguiri and two board members returned to Kenyon, this time to make their official pitch to Kenyon administrators. Over lunch in Cromwell Cottage with Nugent, Bob Brown (who is involved with biking on campus) and Director of Development Sarah Kahrl, they laid out their vision for the partnership.
“We really just went up there prepared but not rehearsed,” Lennox said, recalling that day and the most basic, and arguably most powerful, element of their pitch: “I told them why these people ride.”
Pelotonia is, after all, a charity event first and an athletic event second. “We’re not appealing to the cycling community, we’re appealing to the cancer community. Unfortunately, that is our advantage,” Lennox said. Whenever he speaks at events, he said, he can find people who have been affected by cancer.
Kenyon representatives at the meeting liked the idea of partnering with the charity. Nugent, who travels frequently, recalled that the Columbus airport was covered with Pelotonia banners during the summer. “So the first time I talked to them, I said, ‘When I go into the airport, I want it to say Kenyon and Pelotonia,'” Nugent said. As Kenyon administrators saw it, this partnership was a way to raise money for vital research while raising Kenyon’s profile.
Pelotonia organizers agreed. “A lot of people in Columbus don’t realize what a treasure Kenyon is,” Lennox said, “We hoped that we too could deliver value by communicating to our constituents what a great place Kenyon is.”
At this lunch, the Kenyon administrators also broached the subject of partnering with OSU to offer summer internships to Kenyon students studying biology. Caliguiri immediately saw this proposal as a win-win situation for the two institutions. “What we want to do is to make sure that we provide great opportunity for Kenyon students and, selfishly, we want to see if we can attract them do our grad school,” he said.
There was one concern voiced during the meeting: the dates Pelotonia was proposing for the ride would conflict with the arrival of students. This problem was not insignificant, since Pelotonia intends to use Kenyon dorms to house riders. Sending almost 5,000 riders into the path of incoming upperclass students seemed like a perfect storm. If those dates were set in stone, Nugent said, then Kenyon could not host the ride.
Pelotonia changed their dates. Nugent said she was shocked by their willingness to make the change and how quickly they were able to do it.
With this obstacle out of the way, Kenyon and Pelotonia worked to iron out the details, with Chief Business Officer Mark Kohlman leading the College’s negotiation with the charity.
Through phone calls and emails, they established how facilities would be used and who would pay for what during the event.
Then, in the first week of October, Provost Nayef Samhat, along with Kohlman, Kharl and Graduate School Advisor Maureen Tobin travelled to OSU to speak with administrators and faculty members there about the internship program.
Those discussions resulted in a program that will provide a stipend for six Kenyon students, selected by faculty members, to do reasearch at the Ohio State Medical Center that will, according to Dr. Caliguiri, likely be related to cancer but could also involve other biological research.
Later that month, both parties signed the final agreement.
On Nov. 17, Pelotonia’s board met in one of the private dining rooms in Peirce, where Nugent joined them. For many board members who were Columbus natives but had never been to Kenyon, it proved an awakening experience. Abigail Wexner, the wife of Limited Brands founder and Easton developer Les Wexner, was, according to Nugent, “blown away” by her first visit to the campus.
Then, in early December, a Pelotonia video crew came to Gambier and interviewed Kohlman, Advisor to the President Robin Goodstein and Patrick Mershon ’14 (who is the brother of Collegian Editor Erin Mershon ’12).
Less than a month later, on Jan. 4, Pelotonia posted the resulting video to its YouTube channel with the title “Same Goal, New Destination.” One minute and two seconds in, Lennox says six words that, if organizers and College administrators are correct, will forever represent the public beginning of a long-term partnership that will affect Kenyon students, central Ohio and Pelotonia’s riders.
“This year, we’re heading to Kenyon.”
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