Gary Kneeskern and his daughter, Trista Rowland, rode in the Ronald McDonald House’s “The Cruise” last year and will be returning to Rochester for the motorcycle ride’s loop through southeastern Minnesota. Downtown Preston will be the final stop before riders head back to Rochester.  SUBMITTED PHOTOS
Gary Kneeskern and his daughter, Trista Rowland, rode in the Ronald McDonald House’s “The Cruise” last year and will be returning to Rochester for the motorcycle ride’s loop through southeastern Minnesota. Downtown Preston will be the final stop before riders head back to Rochester. SUBMITTED PHOTOS
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The Ronald McDonald House in Rochester has held an annual motorcycle benefit ride titled "The Cruise" for the past 12 years and has raised over $1 million for its general operations. During this 13th year, the ride's route will be going through Preston for the first time on Sunday, July 28.

Looking forward to this year's ride is longtime Preston motorcyclist and Ronald McDonald House benefactor Gary Kneeskern, who rode in "The Cruise" for the first time last year. He, like many other cyclists will be riding for the kids whose families use the house for lodging and special services when dealing with health problems.

Gary, 59, lives on a hobby farm south of Preston and has worked as a truck driver for Root River Hardwoods for 35 years. During that same time, he has logged in many hours on his Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

Growing up in southwest Iowa with his parents, Cloy and Laurice Kneeskern, Gary wasn't allowed to buy a motorcycle for himself until he got out of high school. Even after he purchased a Honda cycle, his mother would keep telling him to stop riding. Recently, Gary took his mother, Laurice, for a ride on her 80th birthday, which brought to a halt the 40 years of her telling Gary to stop riding.

Discovering a love for Harley-Davidson in 1980, it is now what people can see Gary roll around in to this day. "You can leave all your issues behind," he explained, highlighting why he enjoys going on benefit rides such as "The Cruise."

According to Gary, the biker image from the 1950s and '60s doesn't seem to mesh well with the philanthropic attitude of many riders today.

"There are some who live that image or want to be like 'the big bad biker,' but the majority of riders do it for the joy of riding," he stated.

The wind, freedom and fellowship with other riders are what keep bringing them together for a good cause. In the case of the House's "Cruise" event, more and more cyclists show up each year.

The first unofficial ride took place in 2000, which had 35 riders who raised $200 and brought teddy bears to the Ronald McDonald House. In 2001, 320 riders raised over $13,700. From that, the dollar amount and participation increased steadily, year-by-year. The year 2011 marked a high of 1,530 riders fundraising over $133,450.

Last year's total of 1,240 riders fundraising over $132,000 was slightly off the pace, but according to Gary, it was pouring rain in the morning. He remarked that the weather for this year's event should be much better. Even if it isn't, recent history indicates the riders, including Gary, will come anyway.

Gary has been involved with supporting the Ronald McDonald House for a number of years and only recently decided to get involved with "The Cruise" after learning more about the organization through the Big Springs Lutheran Church, where he fills in from time-to-time as pastor. His church has volunteered in making welcome bags for families at the Ronald McDonald House, an effort that is duplicated in many other ways at other area churches and organizations.

Gary also said some personal experiences have led him to become more involved in raising support for the Ronald McDonald House. After spending a lot of time himself at the Mayo Clinic and Rochester hospital system, Gary said it was difficult seeing kids who face serious medical problems.

"For them to understand the process of tests and treatments, often far from home, has to be intimidating, frustrating and just plain scary" he said. "Their families feel the same emotions."

Having toured the Ronald McDonald House in Rochester, Gary said the centrally-located building gives the families an affordable place to call home for a short while.

"It offers some comfort in the whole process. It takes away some of the anxieties these families face and gives them a feeling of security," he described.

Ronald McDonald Houses provide meals, bedrooms, playrooms for children, and other services at little to no cost to eligible families whose children are undergoing treatment at a nearby hospital.

The Ronald McDonald House is also close to Gary because following the passing of his companion Kristi Kraling to cancer, he gave all the memorial donations to the Ronald McDonald House in honor of Kristi's caregivers and those caregivers at the Ronald McDonald House.

That connection, which was already strong, grew even stronger during "The Cruise" last year. Sharing the ride with his daughter, Trista Rowland, made it even more special.

"She feels like I do when I ride," Gary said.

Gary enjoyed the ride so much last year, that he got involved with suggesting the ride route for this year. In a submission to the Ronald McDonald House, he suggested the route go through Preston. "I thought it would be good for the community," he stated.

When the route was announced, Gary got what he and several other local riders wished. Including the cities of St. Charles, Winona and Rushford, this year's last stop along "The Cruise" will be in Preston.

Following a registration window from 8:30 to 11:30 in the morning at Rochester Community and Technical College's Sports Complex, all bikers will ride at his or her own pace to the various stops. Preston expects bikers to arrive between 2 and 4 p.m. Traffic control will be in place to allow riders to park around the courthouse square.

Main Street from St. Paul to St. Anthony and St. Anthony from Main to Fillmore will be closed from 1 to 4 p.m. Local organizations will be selling food to riders and any residents who go and check out the various motorcycles.

"You will see every make and model of motorcycle, and every age group represented," explained Gary, who said he really enjoys walking around the towns they visit, looking at other cycles, their paint jobs, and the people who ride them. "I think the people will be amazed by the cycles and the people that are riding. They are doing it for the same purpose."

After Preston, the bikers go back to Rochester where a live auction is held. Throughout the day, raffles and silent auctions take place, all raising money for the Ronald McDonald House.

Following the auction, riders receive a police escort to the Ronald McDonald House at 5:30 p.m. A ceremony takes place where a check is given to the Ronald McDonald House. Children staying there attend the ceremony where they are able to see just how many people are supporting them.

Gary said he thinks the kids there must feel great. "It gives you a good feeling when you can see how much it means to the people."

For Gary, doing benefit rides comes with the motorcycle and he said many others feel the same way. "Whether it's the biker club, the Sunday afternoon rider, or the young guy on a crotch-rocket, when there is a benefit ride for someone in need, they show up!" he concluded. "There might be some raised eyebrows, but they do it because they care."