Remembering Frank Iowa, RAGBRAI icon

Frank Iowa (left) and Jody Schomaker. Schomaker shared this memory on the Friends of Frank Iowa Facebook page: “First stop, first day, of my first RAGBRAI, I meet Frank Iowa. After he chastised me for not having a means for taking any pictures in my first RAGBRAI, he regaled me with a few tales and left me with a Rogues coin. That simple gesture became a pivotal moment and had a profound effect on me. I was right where I was supposed to be.” — photo courtesy of Jody Schomaker

For the first time in RAGBRAI’s 45-year history, one of the true legends of the event will be missing. Frank Iowa, the only person from Iowa City to ride in every RAGBRAI, passed away on April 30.

He was born Gregson Schmidt, but his love for his state prompted him to adopt the name by which he became known around his hometown of Iowa City. Over the last 45 RAGBRAIs, “Frank Iowa” became synonymous with the cross-state bike ride.

I had the pleasure of first meeting Frank on RAGBRAI in 1985. I was 26 years old and a decent road cyclist who loved to ride fast. One day, I got a later start than normal and spent most of my day riding at the back of the pack. It was there I found some of the more colorful riders, including Frank. His trademark Duck Dynasty-style facial hair was dark in those days and made it easy to spot him in the crowds of more than 10,000 cyclists.

I had heard about Frank: He was known for partying all day and riding late in the night to reach the next overnight stop. But I was surprised when I met him. While riding with Frank, I learned why he enjoyed the slower pace at the rear of RAGBRAI. It was all about savoring every moment of the ride. He enjoyed a cigarette and a beer at every stop, but enjoyed even more the history of the towns we rode through, and Iowa in general. Frank taught me about different styles of barn, heirloom vs. hybrid corn and the Amana Colonies.

Frank Iowa with his morning coffee. — photo courtesy of Phil Bzdyk, who shared this memory on the Friends of Frank Iowa Facebook page: “I first met Frank on my 1st RAGBRAI. 2003. … We picked Frank up at a WalMart, where he had just purchased the bike he was going to ride across Iowa. Jeff Dunn had been telling me all about this guy, who had changed his name to Frank Iowa, and who had ridden on every RAGBRAI, and who seemed to know just about everyone. I never rode with him on RAGBRAI, because of his tendency to still be lingering in the campsite long after everyone left, and because he would usually come in long after I was asleep. Still, every year we’d chat like comfortable friends. I looked forward to his weather updates on Facebook. He could always be relied on for any Iowa info or Iowa history you needed, you just had to ask. Frank will be missed by friends from all across the country. It was special that he chose RADPAN as his team – his place on our team gave our group a depth and wealth than cannot be refilled.”

Teams are not uncommon on RAGBRAI, and Frank founded one of the most enduring: Frank Iowa and the Rogues of the Night. He handed out “gold” coins to teammates on the 40th anniversary of the group in 2012, an image of a horned cyclist and the word “Rogues” engraved on one side, a map of Iowa on the other. My stepson, Nick, is a proud owner of one of these coins.

A day with Frank started with him waking up around 9 or 9:30 a.m., when most of the other riders on our team were packed and heading out. Frank would savor a large cup of coffee and a cigarette while planning his day, which meant discussing where his favorite RAGBRAI vendor, Mr. Pork Chop, was on the route. Then he’d pack up his small tent and his modest belongings and load them on our Team RADPAN (Ride All Day, Party All Night) bus.

Frank loved riding his bike, but wasn’t flashy about it. I remember once picking him up at the Coralville Target where he got a new bike specifically for RAGBRAI. We loaded it into our bus and one of my teammates, Tom Leacock, helped adjust the bike and get it ready for the ride.

Frank’s attire was much the same as his bicycle: simple and completely functional. He wore printed cotton T-shirts, baseball caps, baggy shorts, mid-calf socks, sneakers and nondescript cycling sunglasses.

There was not a pretentious bone in Frank’s body. He had a passion for life, living simply within his means and finding enjoyment in the moment. There was always something very comfortable about hanging out with Frank. He made friends with ease, and other RAGBRAI riders were always happy to see him. When you saw Frank, you knew you were at the end of the ride, and it was probably time to say a quick hello and get back on the bike.

Aaron Gogerty (left), Frank Iowa (center) and Jeff Felton on RAGBRAI. — photo courtesy of Aaron Gogerty, shared to the Friends of Frank Iowa Facebook page with this message: “Frank Iowa. Rest in Peace my friend. Ragbrai will never be the same.”

Outside of RAGBRAI, Frank kept in touch with his friends over Facebook. I could always count on Frank commenting on my Facebook posts. He loved science and enjoyed sharing the articles he was reading with his friends.

Frank and I were in contact at least once a week throughout the year, but several weeks ago, I realized I hadn’t heard from him for awhile. I was concerned and got in touch with his workplace, and that’s how I learned he had passed away. Frank’s Facebook page has been taken down, but I created a Friends of Frank Iowa page for people to share stories about him.

Since Frank’s passing, I’ve had several teams contact me and share some of their experiences with Frank. The common theme from every team has been how entertaining and welcoming Frank was.

During the 33 years I knew Frank, nothing changed about him, except his beard got a little grayer. His RAGBRAI celebrity grew significantly over the years and he loved to talk about the towns, the stops, the food and the music. He was a wonderful ambassador for Iowa, his Iowa City community and RAGBRAI.

Jeff Dunn misses Frank terribly and wants him to get the recognition he deserves. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 246.

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