The wheels stopped spinning at Denny Offstein’s car dealership last month. Used vehicles still line the lot, and customers can still buy their dream ride or a simple automobile for quick trips, but the chance to claim a free bicycle is basically gone.
Offstein, 72, will continue serving the community, but “The Bike Rodeo” is dead, he said.
For 25 years, Offstein, a Butler native and member of Congregation B’nai Abraham, collected bicycles, had them repaired, then hosted a one-day giveaway. He called it “The Bike Rodeo” and took pride in gifting children something their families could not otherwise afford.
After Offstein hosted his last rodeo on May 5, at an event that featured face painting, police and firefighter visits, crafts and balloons for kids, he remarked that since starting the enterprise decades earlier, he had donated bikes to two generations. Doing so has been important to the area given Butler’s economic realities, he explained.
Butler’s population is approximately 13,000. Its median household income is $30,266, and the poverty rate is 29.6%. In comparison, Pittsburgh’s population is about 2.3 million. Its median household income is $58,521, and the poverty rate is 11.8%.
Like other Rust Belt cities, Butler’s population and economy has slipped and, in many ways, the city which boasted 23,000 residents in 1950 is no longer recognizable to the septuagenarian. Butler was a place where more than six decades ago, Offstein, 72, rode an “old-fashioned bicycle,” complete with balloon tires and a basket, through the streets. The local store was somewhere to stop and purchase pop for a nickel.
“We had something simple,” he said. “We would ride around with the other kids and we would play tag. We had fun.”
Times have changed, and so too has Butler.
“The local store is gone. The local swimming pool is gone. The local movie theater is gone. The playgrounds are gone. And to see all the things that kids had fun with years ago are not here anymore, it is sad.”
Butler no longer resembles Offstein’s memories and neither do the children.
“You look around and all these kids are on their damn phone. These young people today, they don’t even know how to have a conversation. You try to have a conversation with young people, they don’t know how to speak to other people.”
It is why bicycles are so important, he explained. They are mechanisms for breaking that trend, offer a chance to explore, a path outdoors and an opportunity for freedom.
When a child has a bicycle “he can ride and go where he wants and be his own person, and he could have fun,” Offstein said. “The biggest problem with kids today is they don’t know how to have fun. Everybody is on their computerized phones, and they’re looking down. What’s wrong with looking up? You know, the world is great.”
Offstein’s global optimism guides his philanthropy, explained Eric Levin, president of B’nai Abraham.
“Denny will do anything for anyone without asking for anything in return.” Whether it is the bike rodeo, serving on the neighborhood watch or keeping tabs on local politicians to ensure Butler has what it needs “to keep the kids safe,” Offstein is “just a good guy,” Levin said. “He cares about the area he lives in.”
Such is evidenced by his practices.
Apart from giving away more than 1,000 bicycles, in years past Offstein collected and donated 500 coats, ran programs for area youth and in 2012 lent the city of Butler $10,000 to spearhead the purchase and training of two K-9 police officers. As the Chronicle previously reported, after a year’s worth of spaghetti dinners, car washes, T-shirt sales and “contributions ranging from $5 donations to five figure checks,” more than $100,000 was raised and Offstein’s interest-free loan was returned.
What propels Offstein to keep benefiting the area he has called home for most of his life (he briefly lived in Maxon Towers in Squirrel Hill) is a remembrance of origins.
Offstein’s mother, Minnie Sachs, was from Pittsburgh. His father, Lewis Offstein, was from Lodj, Poland.
“My dad came to this country in 1921,” Offstein said. “He had two brothers and two sisters.”
Lewis’ family exodus from Poland was perilous. After having escaped the Cossacks — who came into Lodj and “killed Jews just for the hell of it” — Lewis’ parents and siblings stayed on the bottom of a ship. One of Lewis’ brothers died onboard.
“My dad instilled in me religious values and to give back to the community,” Offstein said.
Work ethic was also infused, as Offstein realized from his first job at his father’s junkyard.
“He gave me a five-gallon bucket, and said, ‘You should go out and pick up nuts and bolts and bring back the bucket, and when it’s full with nuts and bolts I’ll give you a nickel,’” Offstein recalled.
Lewis made sure his son understood certain priorities, like synagogue support and devotion.
There was also the need “to respect other people. You had to say, ‘Yes sir’ or ‘No sir,’ ‘Thank you,’ and work,” Offstein said.
Such sense of responsibility became a part of Offstein’s adulthood.
“I was married. I couldn’t have children, so we tried to do things for other kids,” Offstein said.
“The bike rodeo is by far the biggest event that he has been involved with and it is something that is just near and dear to him,” Levin said.
That is why there are mixed emotions about letting it go. Location, expense and Offstein’s age are among the reasons for its cessation. Apart from storage space, land is needed to house the rodeo.
There is also the fact that “it just takes a lot of people, and people today aren’t volunteering,” said Offstein. It is similar to the paucity you see elsewhere, he continued. “If you go to church, or synagogue, or you go to any community event and you see who is volunteering, it’s old people … it’s a different world then when I was brought up. It’s a shame.”
Both in Butler and its surrounding environs, life has changed, but perhaps the biggest thing today is people don’t have time, he said.
“Just to give you a little trivia, it takes a half hour to go pick up a bicycle, then you listen to the story about the history of the bicycle for a half hour, then you bring the bicycle back here to my place which is a half an hour of traveling time.”
That is 90 minutes.
“Then I have to store it. Then I gotta fix it. Then I got to guarantee it — the bikes I give away are guaranteed for life.” If the bike goes bad, “the kids can bring it back and get another one.”
In that way, and also because of the hundreds of bikes still remaining at his dealership, Offstein remains connected to the cause, even if the rodeo is done.
He said that he will continue helping the community, and with his newfound time dedicate himself to two familiar endeavors: taking care of the business and supporting B’nai Abraham.
“I don’t have any health problems. I’m not sick. I do things,” he said. “God has been good to me. I have no complaints.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.