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Richard Ballantine

Obituary by Tad Wise (The Woodstock Times)

Richard Ballantine, author, publisher, human power advocate and "cyclist guru" to the world, died peacefully at a hospice center in London on the twenty ninth of May; Sherry, his wife of 39 years and their three grown children, at his side. Richard, who had waged a long battle with cancer, was seventy two years old.
Hailing from a family of brilliant eccentrics including the first owner of an automobile in Edinburgh, anarchist Emma Goldman, the discoverer and life-long editor of Eugene O'Neill, [with] a member of the British Raj for one grandfather, and actor, sculptor, race-car driver EJ Ballantine for the other--Richard was also the only child of paperback publishing pioneers Ian and Betty Ballantine. He grew up between Bearsville and Manhattan. 

It could safely be said that young Ballantine looked upon life as a series of adventures to be survived if possible, the first of many involving his being passed as an infant from the window of a burning apartment to a fireman on a ladder. Born near-deaf, Richard compensated by learning to read lips at an extremely young age. Separated from his father, once, in the dangerous confusion of New York City, he thereafter became the most organized and "emergency-equipped" individual imaginable.
When his father lost control of Bantam Books in 1952 and those " loyal to the cause" met clandestinely in the family penthouse apartment on 24th street to form Ballantine Books, Richard--aged 12--was obliged to give up his bedroom from 5 to midnite Monday thru Friday. Publishing was not a job for the Ballantines, it was a way of life--or more specifically a way of PERCEIVING and CREATING life, fast passed from parents to son. It was Richard's uproarious appreciation of Mad Magazine, for instance, which sparked a comedic revolution when that irreverent weekly was adapted into a hugely successful paperback series. It comes as little surprise, then, that of his many illustrative forbearers, Richard was most drawn to the anarchist writings of his great-aunt Emma Goldman, and that of the dozens of authors filing through his home, he became fondest of Marxist, C. Wright Mills. It was--in fact--on a motorcycle borrowed from Mills, that Richard effectively dropped out of Columbia and rode across the country and back--embracing a Call of the Wild he would never completely abandon.
I was four when my mother married Ian's brother, David Ballantine, in 1960. I became aware and ever-more devoted to Richard as he was proving himself a new centurion on the more radical vanguard of the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) at NYU, where he and a flock of bearded friends seemed bent on burning the world, as it was presently configured, to the ground. But though rebellious, Richard was powered primarily--or it seemed to me--by an even more unstoppable sense of fun. Every time he turned up on Ballantine Hill it was with a new girlfriend in different old car. His favorite was an F-85 Oldsmobile, once stolen from him in New York. I remember him triumphantly arriving atop the hill in the middle of a blizzard having freshly stolen it back. Over the years this older cousin gave me my first serious bicycle: a Peugot ten speed; and my first guitar--a Stella steel string. Richard, who could tune a guitar precisely, only played and sang the blues herewith creating a memorable cross between Huddie Leadbelly and a lovesick bear. He was also the first person I ever saw dive (without injury) from Fawn's Leap into the Palenville gorge. Richard was a dancer on skis, over rocky Catskill trails, and on ever sleeker bikes. Assisted and enraptured by adrenaline I followed close behind.
Deafness provided Richard a concentrated clarity which could prove positively spooky. A drunken Bob Dylan once stuck a pistol into Rich's beard in the Espresso Cafe, the zen-like stare from its owner sobering up the poet laureate sufficiently to inspire a rare apology. Given a Jaguarundi kitten the size of his fist, Richard named the cat "Pepe." It grew into the fastest, wildest creature ever witnessed in The Catskills, and before being shot by a farmer, revealed a side of Richard nothing less than cat-like.
While supporting himself indexing non-fiction, and cutting his teeth co-authoring books with friends John Cohen (Africa Addio) and Joel Griffiths (Silent Slaughter), at about thirty Richard began work on a long manuscript about bicycles which--it was decided--would be published by the family. His mother, Betty (who happened to be one of the great line editors of her day) remembers being vaguely terrified. "Here was my son--hard at work on an incredibly involved book concerning a subject I knew absolutely nothing about which I was supposed to edit. Of course, upon reading it I was immediately put at ease--nothing less than marvelous! Precise, witty, chock full of editor's dream!"
The title was pure Ballantine. At once audacious but with a child-like simplicity: "Richard's Bicycle Book" appeared as a new, larger-than-usual "trade" paperback picturing the lean-mean author tuning a crackling-new machine on the cover. Yet it was not only Richard's research and writing, but his timing, which proved superb. The civilized world was reeling from the first oil shortage since WW II; cheaper, lighter, faster bicycles were just coming into production, Ballantine Books already lead the field in ecology books but this how-to encyclopedic omnibus bristled with a fearless eloquence placing its reader squarely on the brink of a self-powered revolution. Nor was Richard's rebellious spirit shy in announcing itself. Though an animal-lover you'd never guess it when RB advised how to take on a ferocious dog. Nor would his reader even begin to tolerate a polite, hat-in-hand deference towards the far larger, vast majority of motorists as Ballantine became the first to declare war on roads full of smoke-spewing behemoths sure to kill you if you let them.
Richard's Bicycle Book went through innumerable editions, incarnations and sequels, including an updated edition for the new century; its author would eventually create several award-winning bicycle magazines, his hands-on approach making him a favorite at bike shows, races, on commitees and as advisor for new designs. Teaming up with Richard Grant (and making spectacular use of an apostrophe) Richards' Ultimate Bicycle Book is easily the most handsome of the brood. But back at the very beginnings of fame, and providing most necessary ballast in maintaining it, love struck hard. I was accustomed to meeting a stream of interesting women attached to Richard. The newest, Sherry Rubin, seemed to step from the pages of one the family's famous Tolkien novels. Sherry was otherworldly to say the least--I might have made a comment something to this effect, when Richard turned and in that king-like manner pronounced very simply: "She's the one." And that, as they say...was that.
Circa '84 Richard and Sherry married and moved to London, beginning a new line, consecutively titled, Danielle, Katharyn, and Shawn--Richard's true education to begin. He became quite the puddle-jumper, writing, editing, and creating book series on both sides of the Atlantic. His full-on style enlisting a literate, highly adventurous readership willing to follow him from bicycling to rock-climbing, to sailing, snorkling and scuba, from aviation and space travel to actually living with wolves. Among his many publishing achievements Richard assisted his father with an 18 volume illustrated history of Vietnam and a 36 volume Air & Space series for Bantam Books, yet his greatest success and interest remained: the fervent promotion of self-propulsion. Having imported the first mountain bike's to the UK and creating a hugely popular fat-tyre race, RB maintained his "Godfather" status in the bicycle movement, writing columns for The Guardian--among many periodicals-- while chairing the first Human Power Vehicle (HVP) Club in the 1980's; the sanest of these alternative contraptions being the "recumbent" pictured above. Richard earlier helped start the London Cycling Campaign a bicyclist charity and advocacy group of 11,000 members. And--as proof of the pudding--neither he nor any of his English-based family have owned an automobile for well over a decade.
A later profound interest in T'ai Chi (assisting Richard greatly in "the inside job" of living with cancer) contributed to making his last years what he described as "the happiest of my life." An extraordinary marriage, a particularly tight-knit relationship with his children, a lengthy, old-fashioned handwritten correspondence with his mother back in Woodstock, all tended to shift the adventure inwards. In a rare visit to London last spring, I found a great calm had settled over the warrior-hero of my youth, while the ponderous speeches Ballantine males seemed compelled to provide the world with had all but disappeared. There were silences in our conversations now, glowing with a meditative warmth.

As I write Richards' body is being conveyed by cycle-pulled hearse among a cortage of motorlessly-moved-mourners to a memorial at the Golders Green chapel in London epic farewell party thereafter to commence. To this stellar send-off I can't help but compare Richard's Great-Aunt Emma's death which came to her exiled and disillusioned in 1940--the year of his birth; "The Revolution" as she'd envisioned it having succumbed to virulent corruption; her assessment of her own life--a near total waste. While the Human Powered Revolution her great-nephew inspired is growing pedal, spoke-'n-chain stronger by the minute, surging into a deceptively mature and powerful force. Nor may I resist noting that structures Richard Ballantine once sought to topple must soon fall of their own unsustainable weight, while the Glory-Day of the life-sustaining conveyances his name will forever be associated with is a growing, living, breathing reality, right here; right now.

Richard is survived by his wife Sherry, their children Danielle, Katharyn and Shawn, grandchildren Alexander and Norah, his mother, Betty, cousin Lucy, and by a world of grateful cyclists.

Richard! Ride on!