John Robinson rode a 10-speed bicycle everywhere he went, logging 20 miles a day, waving to everyone he passed, stopping to help open doors, carry groceries and share a laugh in his deep voice. Around Lillington, they called him “Bicycle Johnny.”
He lived at the end of a bumpy dirt road off Old U.S. 421, sleeping inside a camper propped on cinder blocks. But for decades, he rode around Lillington doing odd jobs for cash. He cleaned up at the JR Mart on Main Street. He walked dogs in Manor Hills. He did so much work at Ann’s Flowers on Front Street that people called there looking for him, asking if he could ride over to cut grass.
So the people of Lillington fell to unanimous grief on hearing that Bicycle Johnny had died at 53, struck by a car last Thursday, riding maybe 100 yards from his house. Within days, the small seat of Harnett County had raised nearly $4,000 for his funeral, offering tributes along the lines of “He touched my soul.”
“There’s probably nobody in Lillington who does not know Johnny,” said Frances Phillips at the flower shop. “He was a good person. He never ate a bite of food without saying a blessing. I know a lady who sent the shop a check for Johnny every year.”
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The size of Robinson’s character can be measured by the affection he won despite his troubled history. Lillington adored a man who got arrested for breaking and entering at age 16, who struggled with drugs and alcohol and who lived in an abandoned building until his doting sister got him the camper. He had issues, his admirers explain, but he trudged through them with a constant motto: “No shame in my game.”
Robinson refused charity, turning down people who offered him ride, insisting on pedaling home in the rain. He took money only in exchange for work, and when jobs came, he showed up at 8 a.m. no matter how he spent the night before. His long association with Ann’s Flowers began with him washing buckets but grew to simple floral arrangements.
“He always did our boutonnieres,” Phillips said.
“He was the fastest wire-wrapper ever,” said Krisi Spears, her co-worker there. “He used to think I was crazy because I talked to my flowers. He’d say, ‘They can’t talk.’ I want to do a special arrangement for him and tell him I talked to those flowers, too.”
When he started at Ann’s, too long ago for anyone to remember, Robinson walked between his jobs. Owner Ann Gregory, retired now, gave the gift that sparked his nickname.
“I stopped at a yard sale one day because he was always having to walk,” said Gregory. “I bought him a bicycle and put it in the back. He came out and was just smiling. He said, ‘I don’t have to walk no more, do I?’ ‘No, Johnny. You don’t.’ ”
Even with a city’s help, Robinson remained stubbornly independent. The flower shop kept a closet full of clothes because Robinson would wear whatever he could find, arriving one day in Spandex biker shorts and the next in too-small corduroy overalls. His approach to medical care bordered on medieval.
“The crazy fool pulled his own tooth,” said Spears. “It was infected and was hurting him.”
Over the years, Robinson collected probably 10 bicycles, one at a time. They would break or get stolen, but he always declined the offer of a new bike if he had a working one to ride.
He’d been struck by cars twice before. He wore a helmet at friends’ urging, but he lost it. Spears recalled telling him only a few days before he died that the reflective vest he wore was falling apart. Still, friends marvel that Bicycle Johnny was struck so close to home and at 8 in the morning. A 57-year-old Lillington man remains charged with misdemeanor death by motor vehicle and failure to reduce speed.
Robinson’s sister Linda Cummings in Willow Spring struggles to let go of the younger brother she tried to protect, earning her Lillington’s praise. “I still feel he might call me,” she said, “and say, ‘Linda, that wasn’t me. You made a mistake.’ ”
Meanwhile, Gregory from the flower shop is working on a floral spray for Bicycle Johnny’s casket. She chose red roses.
A funeral for John “Bicycle Johnny” Robinson will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday at Walker Funeral Home in Lillington. To contribute to the costs, see http://www.walkermemorialfh.com/notices/JohnJohnny-Robinson.