If Jeff Castelaz was a man of few words, his answer would have been simply no.
If he was less gracious, he would have added an obscenity.
Instead, the Milwaukee native explained again how losing an older brother and then a 6-year-old son to cancer motivated him to start a charity, raise nearly $2 million for cancer research and lead bike rides across the country, traveling 50, 70, 100 miles a day for the catharsis that pedaling a bicycle provides.
He’s immersed himself in the cause. He’s made a difference.
But no, he said, “It does not make me feel any less cosmically tortured over the loss of my son.”
Pablo Thrailkill Castelaz died in June 2009, after a year-long battle with bilateral Wilms Tumor, a rare form of childhood cancer.
The dark-haired boy looks up at Castelaz from a picture on the top tube of the Specialized road bike he brought to his hometown last week to start the third leg of Pablove Across America.
The 1,400-mile journey to New Orleans will include 25 riders and generate nearly $500,000 for the Pablove Foundation, which Castelaz and his wife, Jo Ann Thrailkill, founded just months after Pablo’s death.
A group of doctors, engineers, entrepreneurs, business executives, all committed to raising at least $5,000, started the ride Saturday morning from the Di Suvero sculpture on the east end of Wisconsin Ave.
Pablove Foundation riders follow the lead of Jeff Castelaz, left. Photo by Tom Held
Castelaz started the first Pablove Across American ride, alone, in St. Petersburg, Fla.
He finished in Los Angeles, at Pablo’s grave.
“The first year it was like, I had planned in my head that when Pablo was free and clear of cancer, then I would fly to Florida; when he started school,” Castelaz said. “Once he started kindergarten and started rockin’ his treatment, I would ride my bike to California, as a show of strength.
“The idea for the ride was there, and we did it from this other vantage point; Pablo not being with us. As a father who lost a son, I had to get on the darn bike and do this. I had to do it to get my human self back together and find out who I was again."
A photo of Pablo rests on Castelaz' bike. Photo by Tom Held
Two decades ago, Castelaz was an aggressive, hard-working kid who graduated from Milwaukee Tech High School - “before they made it look like a strip mall” - dropped out of Marquette University and immersed himself in the city’s music and social scene.
He held a disc-jockey gig at WMSE, filled a couple local weekly publications with music coverage, helped tear out the floor for what became the Fuel Café, then managed the popular band, Citizen King. Always on an ambitious arc, he moved to Los Angeles in 2000, managed bands and founded the Dangerbird record label.
Amid all that ambition, he found and retained a love for riding a bike.
“The thing about cycling, some people get it from running, some people get it from playing music, some people get it from doing poetry.
“For me, riding a bike which is something I learned how to do here, doing crazy lengths on the south side, just going and going and going for 50 or 60 70 miles, there’s a feeling of grace and balance.
"There’s endorphins and all that going on that does help you feel good, right, you get a feeling of self-mastery when you’re riding your ass off.
“Now that Pablo is gone, for me as a father, I feel a sense of calm, a sense of self-mastery. When I’m on this bike, the phone can’t ring, I can’t be late for a meeting, I can’t have back-to-back conference calls. It’s just me on this darn machine.
“It’s something very childish, or boyish about this whole thing. Life is supposed to be about things like this.”
Anthony Gonzalez swings his son, Matias, before joining Castelaz, his long-time friend, for the ride on Saturday. Photo by Tom Held
Not entirely boyish, or childish, Castelaz views the Pablove Across America rides as a part being a parent for Pablo.
The bike tours include stops at places like Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, where the foundation donates money for play rooms and Castelaz gives comfort to parents struggling with the same fear and sorrow that lingers in his heart.
“I can look in the eyes of another parent and realize they’re grateful to have someone positive come into the room,” Castelaz said.
“I get a sense of satisfaction from our scientific advisory board, when they make their recommendations to us,” he said. “That is what I’m thinking about what I’m riding in the rain and its 50 degrees and we have 20-mph headwind and we’re 15 miles into 100-mile stage.”
Castelaz shares support and a good bye with Mary Sczesny. Her teenage son, David, has gained ground recently in his battle with bone marrow cancer. Photo by Tom Held.
I devoted a good deal of blog space in an attempt to explain the passion and philosophy behind Jeff Castelaz' efforts to fight cancer. He does it better, in his own words.