When you think of a woman on a Harley Davidson motorcycle, your vision is probably of her tightly clinging to a man who is driving. The woman in your mind is most likely middle age at the oldest.
That image does not fit Rylma Berquist of Morristown at all. When she fires up her vintage Harley Davidson, she is the one holding the handlebars. Not only that, more than one person has been surprised to find a motorcycle rider who is in her middle 80s.
The motorcycle may be for fun now, but it was once essential. Known to school children she once taught as Mrs. B, she rode a Harley Davidson to work when she taught in Rogersville and later in Morristown.
She began riding in 1962. It was not a sense of adventure that first got her astride a Harley Davidson; it was necessity.
"I couldn’t afford a second car," she said.
Her introduction to motorcycles was a Harley Davidson 250 Sprint that was "a year or two old" when she bought it. In 1968 she moved up to a slightly used 1966 Harley Davidson 1200 ElectraGlide. That’s the same motorcycle she still has today. She shares it with her husband, Jack, who is 89 and still rides.
Mrs. B is a native of Michigan. She was in college when she met a World War II veteran who had been a paratrooper and jumped into Normandy on D-Day moments after he’d been shot by German ground fire while still aboard the airplane. Five days later, while being treated in a field hospital in a tent, he was shot again by a German sniper. Rylma and Jack have now been married for 65 years.
Jack went to work for Phillips-Magnavox and that meant a lot of moving around for the couple. Of their eight children, the first two and the last were born in Michigan. The other five were all born in different states—Kansas, Tennessee, North Carolina, Connecticut and New York. They finally settled in Morristown in 1981.
In the early 1980s, with the children grown, she decided to become a school teacher. She went to the University of Tennessee in Knoxville for a masters degree and began teaching as a substitute in schools all over Hamblen County in 1981. It was the beginning of a new career for her.
Her reasoning for becoming a teacher was simple by her way of thinking.
"I started after I got rid of my kids. After eight kids, all you know how to do is yell at kids," she said.
After being a Hamblen County substitute, she taught full time in Rogersville for six years, and that was followed by 10 years at Morristown-Hamblen High School East. She was a special education teacher in all her positions and schools.
She also rode her motorcycle to work, including those six years of commuting between Morristown and Rogersville, no matter what kind of weather it was. When she and Jack retired, the wandering days were not quite over. Members of Manley Baptist Church, they went to Honduras for 11 years on mission work, and she taught school there. She still does tutoring at Morristown Hamblen High School East.
Because of shoulder problems, she had to give up motorcycle riding in 2012. She said that is only temporary and she is looking forward to the rumble of the Harley Davidson engine again.
Meanwhile, to keep in shape, she walks a mile a day. The neighbors in her subdivision are accustomed to seeing her out walking and some of them have told her she needs to change her procedure. She reads books as she hikes.
"It doesn’t hurt so bad when you read," she said.
To avoid wandering off the pavement and possibly suffering a fall, she walks in the center of a busy road.
"I walk right down the double yellow line," she said. "If I hear a car coming I move over to one lane or the other."
Rylma is proud that all eight of their children learned to ride motorcycles and some still do. There are probably more riders coming along, since she and Jack have 15 grandchildren, six great-grandchildren, and one great-great-grandchild.
She does not worry about any of the supposed dangers of motorcycles to her or her family. In 50 years of riding, her only problem has been one flat tire.