It’s the last day of classes before finals, and Dr. Matt Stoltzfus, also known as Dr. Fus, is standing in front of his 200-person intro-to-chemistry lecture class wearing a “One Goal” Pelotonia hoodie over a T-shirt adorned with a quote:
"Don’t give up, don’t ever give up."
On two giant screens behind him, a photo of his parents appears. He gestures toward his mother and describes her as a woman who was always smiling and cheering him on.
“I’m very fortunate,” he says, “to have been surrounded by someone like her, who could really show you how much of a difference it makes if you have someone on your side who cares for you.”
He talks about Jimmy Valvano, also known as Jimmy V., the North Carolina State basketball coach who in 1983 carried his team to a national championship. NC State was a six-seed that year, playing for the title against a No. 1-ranked Houston team that included two future NBA Hall of Famers. Jimmy V. might be best known, though, as the man who, after being diagnosed with the cancer that would kill him at just 47, made a speech at the first-ever ESPN Espy Awards pleading with the world to laugh and think and cry every day, and then laying down his motto: Don’t give up, don’t ever give up.
It’s a message Matt Stoltzfus wants his students to carry with them long after they leave his classroom. But he also wants them to think about how they can make the world a better place. After he tells them about Jimmy V., he tells them more about his mother.
A little more than 10 years ago, she was diagnosed with cancer. In May 2008 she died. Matt was 27, and facing a life without his biggest fan. “I didn’t know what to do,” he says.
One thing he did know: He was going to do everything in his power to help find a cure for the disease that took his mother.
The same spring that Mary Stoltzfus died, planning for a grassroots cycling event to raise money for cancer research at Ohio State was underway. Pelotonia started with the goal to end cancer. Over the last nine years, riders, virtual riders, donors and volunteers have raised $157 million. Every rider-raised dollar benefits cancer research at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute. It is one of the biggest weekends of the year in Columbus, with thousands of riders pedaling assorted routes throughout central Ohio.
“I’m an advocate to raise funds for cancer research,” Stoltzfus says. “I’m not a bike rider, and I didn’t have a road bike.”
He wanted to ride in Pelotonia but found renting a bike for a weekend would cost about $100. And that was just for the weekend. To train for Pelotonia, he would need a bike for several months, at least. The price seemed steep to him, and he figured it would likely seem steep to others. So he decided to make getting a bike just a little easier.
In 2010, two years after his mother died, he started a fundraiser for cancer research at Ohio State. In 2012, he decided the impact of the money could grow exponentially by helping people ride in Pelotonia, so he started investing in a fleet of bikes available for rent to anyone who is a part of Team Buckeye, the official superpeloton (riding group) of Ohio State.
The cost to a rider is $185 for the season, which helps pay for tune-ups, new tires each winter and other upkeep, and which includes a helmet and a lock. Each year, he raises a little more money and adds a few more bikes—the program has around 80 available now.
“This helps people ride who might not be able to otherwise,” he says.
Mary Stoltzfus sounds like the kind of woman who made the people around her think they could do anything.
By the time Matt Stoltzfus earned his PhD from Ohio State, tumors had attacked her brain and made it difficult for her to see. Her doctors advised her against traveling to Columbus for her son’s graduation. But she came anyway, with an eye patch over one eye. In every picture, she is smiling a wide, proud smile.
Matt ends each semester the same way, with a talk about his mom, and Jimmy V. and the power that lives in all of his students if they set a goal, work toward it and refuse to give up.
“You see bad things happening every day, but the difference is, how are you going to deal with it?” he told his class last semester. “When I lost my mother, I lost my best friend, I lost my champion and I lost my No. 1 fan.”
He did what she would have encouraged him to do: He channeled that loss into something bigger than himself.
“I’ve gone through the feeling of losing my mother to cancer, and it is just the worst experience I’ve ever had to go through in my life,” he says. “So the question is: How do we prevent that from happening to someone else?”