Motorcyclists travel miles to remember Don Tilley

Published 12:00 am Monday, September 8, 2014

Every now and then Don Tilley would drop into the Waffle House not far from his Tilley Harley-Davidson store in Statesville where Teri Randol worked.
Randol, who doesn’t ride a motorcycle but had to be there to greet those who did, stood outside the restaurant with her cell phone in hand to video the thousands of motorcyclists who traveled more than 40 miles during Sunday’s memorial ride to honor Tilley.
The popular owner of Tilley Harley-Davidson stores in Statesville and Salisbury died a week ago in a motorcycle accident on the Blue Ridge Parkway near Asheville. His wife, Robinette, was critically injured in the crash. She remains in an Asheville hospital.
“He was the most humble man,” Randol said.
She also noted how down-to-earth Tilley was.
“My heart goes out to his wife,” she said.
Randol spoke of the range of motorcyclists who participated in the ride, some of whom were women, African-American, young, older, professionals, law enforcement.
“It’s all about peace and love,” she said with a smile.
An estimated 3,000 to 5,000 motorcyclists from North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and other states began the memorial trek from Cabarrus County. Some of the riders were led into Rowan County from the Speedway Harley-Davidson in Concord, where the bikers of all ages and walks of life gathered before the nearly two-hour journey to the Statesville Senior High School stadium.
The bikers set out from Tilley’s Salisbury store on Bendix Drive and traveled along U.S. 70 where they stopped at the Statesville store.
The bikers were escorted by the motor squads from Iredell County, Davidson County, Cabarrus County and the Mooresville Police. Along the route several other area law enforcement helped block the streets so the motorcyclists could travel unobstructed.
Sgt. Chris Smith, with the Iredell County Sheriff’s Office’s motor squad, said he’s escorted bikers from Tilley’s store on past charity rides, and the family asked whether the motor squad could safely escort them to Statesville.
“It’s an honor to be able to do this for the family,” Smith said.
He reached out to the other riders in nearby motor squads and the members agreed.
Tilley Harley-Davidson had provided the Iredell County motor squad with a number of motorcycles over the years, Smith said.
More than his love of motorcycles and the racing world, what most people noted about Tilley was his giving heart.
John Howard, a Rowan County Sheriff’s deputy, said he first thought about getting a patrol car to join in the ride, but instead decided to ride his motorcycle.
The turnout, he said, showed how close-knit the motorcycle community is and just how much people respected Tilley.
He’d known Tilley since 1980 and bought his second Harley from Tilley’s store.
Howard said Tilley contributed to lots of charitable organizations, including Victory Junction Gang Camp, a camp for children with chronic medical conditions.
Gina Murdick met Tilley once at a charity bike ride in Mooresville. She said he was “a friend of everybody.”
A friend shared a story with Murdick about how she’d met Tilley on the Blue Ridge Parkway when her motorcycle broke down on the roadside.
The friend told Murdick there were motorcyclists who’d passed by them without stopping, but not Tilley. He stopped, gave the friend the needed parts to repair the bike, repaired it for them and left.
He didn’t expect any form of compensation, Murdick said.
Riders turned out Sunday “to show respect for a man that did a lot for people, the children and the biker world,” she said.
As the thousands of motorcyclists turned onto Morland Drive to the Tilley store in Statesville there were plenty of thumbs up and some sideways as a sign of respect, one biker said.
A number of motorists on the opposite side of U.S. 70 pulled over as the motorcycle procession made its way into Statesville. A convoy of National Guard vehicles even pulled over and stopped to salute as the motorcyclists continued on by, a motorcyclist said.
On any other day, the casual observer might have thought a parade was taking place in downtown Statesville because of the people lining the streets. There were people on the backs of trucks, a few sitting in camp chairs and others standing as they awaited the mass of motorcyclists that would roll through downtown.
Nancy Cook and her husband, Wendell, were two of those waiting in downtown Statesville.
The couple have been longtime friends of the Tilleys since their daughters were in the band together.
Nancy and Wendell said they’ve known Don and Robinette since 1960 and felt it an honor to await the convoy.
Nancy said Robinette is a good friend, and the Tilley’s daughters, Denise and Donna, were “like adopted children.”
She said they lived in the same neighborhood as the Tilleys and attend church with Derrick Tilley, the son of Don and Robinette.
“I think it’s spectacular,” she said of the turnout.
The Cooks’ daughter and adopted son were both riding, she said.
Wendell called Tilley an expert rider and an expert at working on motorcycles. He also credited Tilley for being a large supporter of fundraisers that aid children with illnesses.
Jim Hargrave credits Tilley with getting him back on a bike. The 71-year-old Salisbury business owner had not been on a motorcycle in about 25 years. Hargrave, owner of Rowan Funeral Services, said he and Tilley would occasionally talk about serving in Vietnam.
He said Tilley was still friendly and kind even if you didn’t buy a motorcycle from him.
Hargrave is a member of the Old Skool Motorcycle Club of Salisbury.
Tilley co-founded the Kyle Petty charity ride across America, which he had participated in for the last 20 years.
Tilley was well known in the auto racing community as well as the motorcycle world.
In the late 1950s, Tilley raced stock cars and motorcycles while working for a Harley-Davidson dealership in Statesville. Don and Robinette didn’t open their Statesville store until 1972.
Speakers at the service included well-known NASCAR drivers Kyle Petty and Donnie Allison. Mike Helton, president of NASCAR, also shared memories of Tilley.
Petty said Tilley was his hero and growing up, he wanted to be just like him.
“The longer I knew him, the kinder he became,” Petty said.
He said Tilley never just sold a person a motorcycle; he made friends.
Steve Phillips, former vice president of Harley-Davidson, spoke of how he and Tilley rode in all types of inclement weather — rain, snow, cold, and the “blistering heat.”
“He was the best motorcyclist I’ve ever ridden with in my life,” Phillips said.
Contact reporter Shavonne Potts at 704-797-4253.