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Father keeps son's memory alive on wheels; Healey honors his late son in Ride for Roswell

Tom Healey took the green mountain bike out just for a short ride Saturday. An eight-mile loop through the bike path and down to Niagara Falls Boulevard.

The mountain bike has been Healey's for about 12 years now. Before that it was his son's.

Russell Healey was a bossy 10-year-old boy when he was diagnosed with leukemia. He rode the bike twice in the Ride for Roswell. His last ride came just a month before his death.

Since Russell's death, Tom Healey rides it. Just as he did Saturday.

"I think he's up there looking down on us," Tom Healey said, turning and looking upward. "There's no reason to ever stop."

Saturday marked Tom Healey's 14th time at the Ride for Roswell. Healey was one of 7,000 who turned out to ride. The event raised about $2.6 million, the highest yet.

For these 14 years, Healey has symbolized the ride and the people in it. And it's been the story of a father, a son and a green mountain bike.

It was the summer of 1996, and Russell was sick and not getting any better. Eventually he and his parents, Tom and Cathy, ended up at Roswell Park Cancer Institute.

A rare form of leukemia, doctors said. Treatment would likely prove futile.

"I felt like I had died and gone to hell," Cathy Healey said.

Doctors ran tests on Russell. They sought advice from still more doctors. They suggested that a bone-marrow transplant might work. So they pumped 900 milliliters of blood and marrow into him, some of it donated by Russell's sister, Lisa.

"I would've felt like I was a mean sister if I had told him, 'No,' " Lisa Healey said.

The transplant worked, and Russell's cancer went into remission. He was home in time to be a spaceman for Halloween.

It was at Roswell Park that he saw the signs for Ride for Roswell. He got the idea stuck in his head. Next year, he told his father, I want to be in it.

"When we knew we were going to do the Ride for Roswell, that's when they bought the bikes," Tom Healey said.

Around Christmastime, Tom Healey took Russell, Lisa and his third child, Ron, to Dicks Sporting Goods in Amherst to shop for the bikes.

Lisa picked out a purple one. Russell liked the green Huffy mountain bike with the yellow lettering. So Tom Healey paid, and took the bikes home for Christmas morning.

Russell was feeling better then. His hair was starting to grow back in some. It was Tom Healey who was sick that Christmas.

It was just the flu, but it sidelined Tom Healey to the couch. Even the Christmas tree stayed on the ground after someone knocked it down. Russell took care of his dad.

"I was covered with stuffed animals to make me feel better," Tom Healey said.

When Russell's platelet levels went back up, he was allowed to ride the green mountain bike. In the summer of 1997, he rode in the Ride for Roswell, all nine miles of it. Russell was the team captain, which suited him fine. He liked to be in charge.

His dad rode with him, on a red Schwinn mountain bike. The bike he had since he was about Russell's age.

Tragedy struck a second time in 1997. Russell's cancer came back. This time a stem-cell transplant, and Lisa Healey donated again.

When it was time for Russell's second Ride for Roswell, the doctors told him no.

"But I knew better," Tom Healey said, "because he had already raised a lot -- he had already raised more than $4,000 that year."

So Tom Healey snuck down to the ride's route when most of the bikers had started already. He and his son made about two miles, just to the first rest stop. Someone had to come and drive them back.

But Russell had gotten to ride on his mountain bike. Nobody knew about the ride except for them. Not even Russell's mom.

"By the time she was back over, we were eating, so the deed had been done," Tom Healey said.

A month after that ride, Russell died. His lungs were too weak, broken by the chemotherapy. The picture taken at the ride was the last picture ever of Russell.

After Russell's death, the green mountain bike waited for a new rider. Tom Healey took it out for the next year's Ride for Roswell. He tossed away the red Schwinn, and he has ridden on Russell's bike ever since.

Not much changes for Tom Healey and the team Russell captained, Russell's Raiders. Each year different people join it and ride for the team.

His mother made it this year. She brought two of Russell's stuffed animals with her. Probably two of the ones that Russell tried to cheer his father with that Christmas.

His father has done the 20-mile ride, the 30-mile ride. This year was just an eight-mile one though.

He's older now, but he still sees Russell with him.

"Well, he's sitting right here," Tom Healey said, pointing to the green mountain bike's seat. "I think he's proud of all of us."

e-mail: abrown@buffnews.com