Ride for Jack: Family does RAGBRAI for student who died while studying abroad
COUNCIL BLUFFS, Ia. — Ben Gustafson was in need of some joy — even if he couldn’t fathom using that word at the time.
His older brother Jack had died unexpectedly months earlier at the too-young age of 20 while studying abroad. And Ben — or Benny, if you know him well enough — was Jack’s mini-me. They looked alike, sure, but if you ask anyone who knew them, it was like they shared a soul, like Peter Pan and his shadow.
So losing Jack wasn’t just losing a best friend, but also losing a North Star and a tether to happiness.
People told Ben, 16, he had the body to wrestle — just like his brother had — so he took a chance. And in an attempt to get his North Star back, at least on the mat, he inscribed his shoes with a message: “I wrestle for Jack.”
“The first time I won a match and the ref held my hand up was the first time I felt joy in a long time,” he said surrounded by bikes this week.
He’s chasing that feeling of joy again as he rides his brother’s bike — a famous Pinarello — across the Hawkeye State during the Register’s Great Annual Bicycle Ride Across Iowa. He’s joined by his father, Dan, and his brother, Will, 19, and a bunch of friends and family who have been there for the Gustafsons in their darkest hours.
Amid those RAGBRAI-ers riding for fun and sun and pie, plenty of teams pedal for a greater purpose. Many want to educate, others solicit donations. But for the Gustafsons, this is a personal quest rooted in a deep connection to this land and this event.
Before his passing, Jack attended Grinnell College and loved Iowa, coming into himself in many ways while a student and a member of the track team. And, three months after he died, Jack was supposed to ride RAGBRAI with his dad on an adventure for just the two of them.
So here, sitting in camp chairs with bikes strewn about their RV, the Gustafsons and their friends face both a redoing, of sorts, and a reclaiming. Gathering the group, Dan centers them with stories of Jack and of how they helped his family, maybe in ways they didn’t even know.
Jack excelled at activities centered on harnessing minute details and then unleashing extreme power: throwing hammer and javelin, wrestling and cycling, Dan said. Before he died, he was getting close to his dad’s speed according to his Strava, a pace app, which, for the record, Dan didn’t hold against his son, but kept as a point of pride.
“He would have risen to this occasion, joyously,” Dan said. “He would have been climbing up the hills before any of us, but he’d be also the guy who would wait at the top and would cheer you on until you got there, too.”
Helping hands and hairy legs
When writing about those who have died, we journalists run the risk of making a normal, fallible human into a larger-than-life figure. But the stories Jack’s family tell about him are ordinary — in the best way, in a way he would have wanted them to be, his family said.
At lunch during high school, he ate with a developmentally disabled boy who had been bullied earlier that year. As a summer lifeguard, he stopped to help an elderly man in medical distress on his way home.
Offering a helping hand wasn’t something to be celebrated in Jack’s mind; it was a way of life.
“Jack was one of the people who truly took joy in seeing those around him happy,” Emily McClure wrote on a memorial page for Jack set up by Grinnell. “He was famous for his great hugs and winning smile. He loved meeting new people and welcoming them into his life. He loved going on adventures.”
A hammer thrower, Jack had “muscles on muscles” and could often be seen around Grinnell in “bro tanks,” tank tops with huge holes for the arms, a la 1980s wrestlers. He was so hairy that he wore shorts throughout the winter.
“He felt that he had extra insulation, so the rest of the world may have needed pants, but not him,” Dan said.
By his sophomore year, Jack decided to follow his father’s footsteps into psychology. That summer, he walked the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, resume in hand, looking for someone to let him conduct research. He eventually found a taker and spent the summer doing “functional magnetic resonance imaging” on “the nature of anxiety,” his dad said.
He decided to study abroad his junior year and scoped out where he would have the most opportunities to travel. Freiburg, Germany, it was.
The day he died, he had been accepted into a practicum at the Mayo Clinic for the upcoming summer. He would get his own apartment and live away from his family for the first time outside of school. Jack Skyped his dad in the 10 minutes Dan had in between patients to tell him the news.
“I came home just honestly elated,” Dan said, “just to thinking, ‘Oh, this is such a wonderful thing.’”
Warmth amid cold
What happened between that Skype and the phone call from Jack’s best friend telling the Gustafsons he was in the hospital remains, in some part, a mystery to the family. He went out and was back in his dorm when he passed from what amounts to a freak medical accident, which, given their lingering questions, is all the family felt comfortable disclosing.
Dan booked a ticket to Germany, but by the time he pulled into O’Hare’s parking lot, Jack had died.
It was Easter weekend, and, in Germany, offices close for an extended time over that spring holiday. The experience felt Kafka-esque, Dan remembered, because there simply wasn’t anyone around to help.
He was told it could take 21 days to get the body home, but after five days, the gears of government began to grind. Finally, Dan was let into the morgue, an austere building peppered with graffiti, to see his son. Friends in Germany had readied him for the coldness of it all.
So, on the appointed morning, Dan and some friends went to the market and bought out every yellow tulip, his wife’s favorite flower. They laid the tulips out in a sort of makeshift path from the morgue lobby to the outside — a botanical guide to bring warmth and happiness to his son.
Eleven days later, the Gustafsons were able to get Jack’s body out of the country and hold a memorial service. Grinnell provided a bus to carry students who wanted to pay respects, and the college’s dean of students spoke at the ceremony.
During graduation a few weeks ago, Jack’s class pinned yellow tulips to their gowns. And as their senior class gift, they planted a tulip tree, which should mark Jack’s passing every March with full, yellow blooms.
After Dan’s meditation on Jack’s life, he revealed a special gift for those gathered. Opening the packages, most of the dozen or so people gathered near the RV wipe tears under their sunglasses.
Ornamented with a Jack Russell terrier (a nod to Jack’s full name) on a bike, the jersey declares: “I Ride for Jack.”
“Let’s wear them tomorrow,” someone says.
“Yeah, get this started off right,” another agrees.
For many, including Dan’s high school best friend, Michael Lerner, the pain of Jack’s death exists just under the surface — always. Like a sunburn, you can forget it’s there momentarily, but then something rubs, and the pain smacks you again.
Dan finds a bit of freedom from the weight of Jack’s death in cycling. On long straightaways, with no one else around, father and son talk, in their way.
Riding RAGBRAI for Jack is complex. There’s a finality to completing an adventure built for two without that partner. The Jack Russell tour is planning to lighten the mood with memories and portable Ping-Pong and one of their rider’s homebrews, inspired by Gatorade and made especially for this occasion.
What the Gustafsons know deeply is that, unlike RAGBRAI, their grief has no end; no Mississippi tire-dip to mark it done.
But the key is to try to find some joy along the way.