Bikers tore down the placid, suburban streets of Stoughton, engines revving and roaring with purpose as they waved amiably to passerby.
They had one mission: to make Dennis Burns smile.
A few days earlier, the Capital City Riders Motorcycle Club in Madison received a Facebook message from Stoughton resident Ryan Michaelis requesting a favor. Michaelis asked if they could do one big drive-by for his grandfather – Burns, a motorcycle and car enthusiast who was recently diagnosed with cancer for the second time.
“I was racking my brain for things I could do to improve my grandpa’s mood, so I started with what I knew he was interested in,” Michaelis said. “It’s crazy how much you can get accomplished if you just ask.”
The club heartily agreed, and on the evening of Aug. 2, over 20 members and supporters rode down to Burns’ house in Stoughton, blocking off some roads to allow the group’s safe passage.
When the riders arrived, Burns and his family greeted them with wide grins and cellphone cameras to capture the event. Homemade signs thanking the Capital City Riders were strewn across the front lawn.
One by one, bikers came up to Burns for handshakes and hugs, making light conversation and easily building a rapport through their shared love for motorcycles.
Janell Stern, Burns’ youngest daughter, said the last couple weeks have taken a heavy toll on their family due to its small size and emotional closeness. Burns, who trained in the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam War, is now a great-grandfather at age 68.
“This is all we have, and we’re pretty tight,” Stern said. “So I definitely think that there will be a piece of the family that won’t be able to be replaced.”
Burns’ eldest child, Janett Anderson, said their dad was in complete remission for six years before the sickness reappeared “with a vengeance.”
Twelve years ago, Burns was diagnosed with bladder and colon cancer. Anderson said the cancer now also occupies his lungs, scar tissue, and one of his main arteries.
Despite the constant pain and inevitable fatality of his condition, Anderson said Burns has continued to be the strong head of the family, always smiling and bottling up his pain.
“He’s a hero because through all of this, he’s more concerned about everyone else,” Anderson said. “He doesn’t want us to see when he’s really sick.”
Michaelis said as a kid he always looked up to Burns for his brave, carefree personality.
“When I thought of someone cool, like The Fonz, I thought of my grandfather,” Michaelis said. “He just has a way about him, like you shouldn’t take anything too seriously. He knows how to relax and live a good life.”
Love for bikes
Burns said while he was initially interested in creating model vehicles and collecting 1960s muscle cars, he grew to love riding motorcycles when he wasn’t working as the state capitol’s deputy seargent-at-arms.
He reminisced about long rides with friends through California and overseas adventures to Russia, Italy and Serbia that characterized his younger days.
“It’s just the freedom of (them),” Burns said. “The work that I did at the legislature downtown was stressful at times.
“But when you get on the bike, everything disappears. It’s just you and the wind. You can come and go as you please.”
Anderson said that Burns often took his family members on rides, and she accompanied him a few times for the Muscular Dystrophy Association Freedom Ride.
Burns’ other interests, according to his family, include fishing, watching movies, Elvis and participating in other part-time musical ventures.
“He even DJed at our school,” Anderson said with a laugh. “The song he would always play was ‘The Wanderer’.”
Bikers give back
Dale Scovill, a longstanding member of Capital City Riders, said while the club hadn’t done anything like this before, they would never turn down a chance to help a community member in need.
“We’re all about giving back to the community,” Scovill said. “It gives us a reason to ride.”
Scovill said the club is different from stereotypical “biker gangs” in terms of its good relationship with authority and the neighborhoods it helps.
The club, which currently has 300 members and an expanding clubhouse, has donated a total of $1.5 million to southern Wisconsin since its formation over 50 years ago. Scovill said Capital City Riders have participated in many events over the years, including the Thunder Run, fundraising for the Wil-Mar Neighborhood Center and lobbying for motorist and bicyclist road safety.
This year the group will host its 12th annual poker run and kids carnival on August 17, an event that raises money to fund a child’s Make-A-Wish trip.
Following the Capital City Riders visit, Michaelis said he hopes the family is able to have strength, and Burns continues to fight with positivity and energy.
“I wanted to give him something to look forward to,” Michaelis said. “To create the best memories possible while there’s still time.”