Pauline Lawrence may be nearly blind. She may be 94 years old. And she stands just 4 feet, 10 inches tall. But don’t underestimate this petite dynamo.
On a recent Monday morning, the Escondido, California, retiree — wearing a pink jogging suit and dangling turquoise earrings — pedaled five miles around Mission Bay Park on the back of a tandem bicycle.
Getting back on a bike was a “dream” for Lawrence, the latest recipient of the Dreams Do Come True program at the Cypress Court retirement community in Escondido.
Wellness director Judy Lucous came up with the program three years ago when an elderly woman on hospice at the center asked for some help fulfilling the final wish on her bucket list — to go shopping.
Lucous was able to take the woman to the mall before she died. Since then, Cypress Court has granted three more wishes, including taking one resident up in a tethered hot-air balloon, another parasailing and a third for a brief sail on a wheelchair-modified catamaran.
Lawrence said she hadn’t ridden a bicycle in nearly 15 years because of the deterioration of her sight. She’s blind in her right eye and has no central vision in her left.
Back in the 1990s, she and her first husband, Charles “Chick” Italiano, rode more than 20 miles a day, three to four mornings a week, from their home in Claremont’s Western Hills, overlooking Mission Bay.
“I loved feeling the wind in my hair and seeing all the beautiful sights,” she recalled. “We had the most beautiful playground right there in our front yard.”
Lawrence figured her cycling days were well behind her until she read an article last year about the Blind Stokers Club. Founded in 2007 by retired engineer Dave White, it’s the largest and most active tandem club for blind riders in the country.
The 140-member club pairs sighted pilots with blind and visually impaired “stokers” (the term for the rider on the back seat) for about 24 rides each year of 25 to 60 miles. The club also does special events for blind students in the San Diego schools and, as in Lawrence’s case, fulfills special requests.
Last month, Lucous contacted White, who agreed to meet at De Anza Cove Park to personally take Lawrence on a tandem ride, retracing some of the route on the East Mission Bay bike trail that she once rode with her first husband.
White said he never tires of seeing the joy on the faces of his tandem passengers in the tiny rearview mirror attached to his sunglasses. He wasn’t sure how far Lawrence would be able to ride, but was amazed by her fitness and stamina.
“Pauline is a natural stoker,” he said after the ride. “She had complete trust in her pilot and was moved to tell memorable stories the whole way.”
Joining them for the morning were Lawrence’s children, Linda Italiano, 70, of Mira Mesa, and Brad Italiano, 59, of Ramona. Brad followed the tandem pair on his own beach cruiser, and Linda took photos, saw them off from De Anza Cove and welcomed their return.
Neither one was surprised by their mom’s determination to ride again and her ability to complete her goal. She’s been a “firecracker” her whole life, Brad said.
In their younger years, Lawrence and Chick Italiano were ballroom and square dancers. She credited square dancing with getting her through a yearlong chemotherapy regimen when she battled inflammatory carcinoma 20 years ago.
They took up biking together when they retired — he owned a plumbing supply business and she worked for the Navy Personnel Research Center in Point Loma. When they weren’t cycling locally, they’d load their bicycles on their motor home and logged nearly 2,000 miles on bike trails from Key West, Florida, to Canada.
After Italiano died, she married Jim Lawrence, who passed away after 11 years of marriage. She also lost her son, Randy Italiano, 51, in 2007.
Faced with so many losses, including her vision, Lawrence gave up cycling, sold her home and moved into assisted living. She relocated to Cypress Court one year ago and not long after applied for the Dreams Do Come True program.
After her ride, Lawrence was ecstatic over the experience.
“It couldn’t have gone better,” she said. “Dave made the decision to turn around, but I would’ve kept on going. The sky was so beautiful and I could see all the improvements that have been made in the years since I rode there. And all the people were so nice to me. It was wonderful.”