Save the Wheels

An enterprising skatemom stands up to a board-stiff community.

Beautiful People
If you build it, they will come: RaeAnne Thomas and the skatepunks of North Olmsted. - Walter  Novak
If you build it, they will come: RaeAnne Thomas and the skatepunks of North Olmsted.
Gee, that's a lot of bratwurst, thought RaeAnne Thomas, taking her place at the World's Largest Grill. The links seemed to stretch to the horizon, bubbling into the burning sun.

But she had come so far. She couldn't turn back. So she dug in her heels, gripped the metal tongs, and set out to learn the secret Bratwurst Domino Effect Trick.

"If you set 'em in there right, you could roll one and they'd all flip over," she explains. "You could get 20 of them to roll."

When you're the queen of fund-raising, such shortcuts come in handy. Her social calendar scripted with pizza-eating contests, spring bulb sales, and wine-and-cheese tastings, Thomas wears the crown in North Olmsted, where she's also been christened "The Mayor of Ward 2" and "Mrs. Blood, Sweat and Tears."

"Sometimes, there'll be this article in the local newspaper, and it'll say, "North Olmsted Needs Volunteers,'" she says. "And my husband will try to hide the paper."

About two years ago, Thomas leapt from community servant to folk hero material when she set out to wrest the neighborhood skateboarders, BMX bikers, and roller bladers from their chains. Cast from nearly all flat surfaces they dare set wheel on, the baby-faced teens were the bane of every strip-mall store owner with a nice piece of sidewalk and the scourge of every upstanding citizen who deplored baggy orange pants.

An ice skating teacher who also works at the Springvale Ballroom, Thomas has a 17-year-old son, Keith, who's on the waning end of skateboard punk-ism. For her, there's no sound more ephemeral than the scrape of kids' skates on asphalt at a nearby playground.

"I can hear the skateboards clicking and clicking, and then, 15 minutes later, they're silent," she says. "I look through my back gate, and they're gone." She doesn't have to hear cries of "Look out! It's the fuzz!" to know that the kids have been told to move on.

"I'll bring my briefcase" and "Let me check my time line" among her stock phrases, Thomas is no stranger to civic meetings. She was attending one when she boldly proposed that the city build a public skateboard course for the shunned teens.

She had watched her son and his friends practicing their moves in the driveway and supervised them on trips to indoor skateboard parks that smelled of years of sweat and spilled pop. As an ice skater, she identified with the boys' repeated attempts at risk-taking.

"These are good kids," she says. "They aren't people that give up easily. You've gotta be persistent to learn. Self-satisfaction -- it's important. It's important to like yourself, to like others. And that's what these kids are learning from this sport. And they're learning how to get along with each other."

At Chenga in North Ridgeville, an indoor course in a woebegone strip mall where Big Lots would be a boon, kids recognize Thomas as "the skateboard lady." On a Saturday night, 30 or 40 of them in helmets and kneepads are twisting, writhing in mid-air, flying. They land hard, miraculously don't collide, and wait their turn in arbitrary lines.

A slight, contemplative kid with dark hair and freckles, 14-year-old Tom Burnett adjusts his helmet, his face a tiny picture of seriousness under all that Styrofoam and fiberglass.

"I've learned a lot here just by watching and trying it," he says. "I'm just trying to get better at it. I don't get it real easy. I'm not real fast at learning things."

Burnett just learned how to do a Top Sole on a Half Pipe -- a medium-hard trick that involves "riding the rails" on the edge of a concrete arc. It took him six straight days. Now he's working on the even tougher Alley Oop Topside Porn Star.

When Thomas proposed a public course, North Olmsted council members said "Sure!" -- as long as she did all the research, presented a viable design, and came up with the $100,000 to build it. She's raised $90,000. That's a lot of tulip bulbs, not to mention $8 self-published Taste of North Olmsted cookbooks with homespun recipes for Texas Pinwheels and Sausage Stars.

"I am so close," she squeals, crossing her fingers. "The last $10,000's been promised -- it just hasn't come in yet."

After a classic political battle between the Young People and the Stodgy Old Holdouts -- some of whom weren't that old and maybe weren't really even that stodgy -- the city surrendered a slip of unlandscaped green space behind the rec center for the course.

And after talking with Thomas several times, California landscape architect Alan Fishman decided to offer his services cut-rate.

"She was desperate, sincere, trying really hard, and needed help," he says. "The city was not gonna give her any money, and all the other designers had blown her off."

The groundbreaking is still at least a month away, but Thomas is already about to burst.

"That's my baby, right there," she says, pointing to a piece of land reminiscent of a stick of gum. "See? There's already a security fence. Cost-effective. There's already drainage. Cost-effective. This piece of fence that's going right here. Donated already. In kind. Landscaping is donated." Last Christmas, her son gave her $20 worth of videotapes, so she could tape the park's construction, "from dirt to vert." That made her cry.

Outside the rec center, where she took her first ice skating lesson at age 34, she nudges an iron trash receptacle with her shoe, explaining that she needs one like it for the park. Something the kids won't knock over and use for an obstacle.

"Do you know how much this garbage can is?" she inquires. "Four hundred dollars. Get outta town! I'll be fund-raising when I'm an old lady."

Inside, Ginna McCrea, the teacher who encouraged Thomas to pursue competitive skating when she was some 20 years past the perky nubile teen stage, sorts through supply boxes. A competitive skater herself until injuries got in the way, McCrea now coaches a women's hockey team called Dangerous Curves, "a bumper crop of nascent, geriatric hockey players."

Practically eons ago, Thomas was in McCrea's Learn to Skate class -- "a lovely group of people that I describe as our objets d'art -- they hang on your walls" to keep from falling, says McCrea, who's been one of Thomas's biggest cheerleaders, both on and off the ice.

"RaeAnne has more than her share of chutzpah," says McCrea, who's in no danger of a chutzpah shortage herself. "What she also has is a very wonderful, diamond hard-edge focus. Whatever the subject is, if that becomes her focus, she will spend no less time or energy on it than the Cleveland Clinic spends looking for a cure for cancer."

Some council members measure their praise for Thomas, noting such a course must be cautiously planned, and they can't plan as fast as she can raise money. Talk of the course ignited a mini letters to the editor war in the local Sun Herald, with the typical "those damn kids" and "those damn old people" responses.

But North Olmsted Mayor Norm Musial describes Thomas as "the driving force, the type of person that puts the muscle and meat on the skeleton." He first heard of her several years ago, when she became an unofficial ombudsman during repairs on her home street. "She got a set of blueprints and discovered things and called City Hall and said, "Do you really want this? Isn't that a mistake?'"

Thomas's husband, Ray, has faithfully videotaped all her ice skating competitions. Whenever she attempts a lutz -- a jump that took years of landing on her butt to learn -- Ray gasps, and the gasp turns up on the videotape.

"I don't know how this man puts up with me," she says. "First it was my skating. Gotta go, gotta go, gotta go. And then competition week is always pretty tense around the house. And then I got into this.

"He's probably going, "What's next? She's gonna form a rock band or something.'"

In her hope chest, RaeAnne keeps a scrapbook on the skateboard park and another one for her ice skating. A third book bulges with clippings of a tragedy that had comic closure. Twenty years ago, when she and Ray were engaged, he fell 80 feet from a cliff at the Metroparks, face-down into the river below. RaeAnne's dog, Woody, jumped after him, then held Ray's head out of the water so he wouldn't drown. Ray suffered spinal injuries that temporarily left him partially paralyzed.

In the hospital, while Ray watched M.A.S.H. and recovered on a "circle bed" that rotated to relieve stress on his back, RaeAnne flipped through women's magazines. "Do you know a dog that has done a good deed?" read an ad. "Nominate her for Ken-L-Ration Dog Hero of the Year."

"I said, "Ray, look at this!'" she recalls. "He goes, "Go ahead and write the story.' I said, well, you're gonna be the one that has to explain why you fell off that cliff."

In the finals, Woody prevailed over Stumpy, a pit bull terrier, and Texas, a golden retriever. She flew to Hollywood with RaeAnne and Ray, where they made a guest appearance on The Toni Tenille Show and were chauffeured around in high style.

"[Woody] loved that limousine," sighs RaeAnne, looking at a picture of her beloved collie-shepherd mix, who would cock her head for the camera if you whispered "Grandma." "We'd roll the window down and duck, and all there'd be was a dog. That was a different year."

During another year, RaeAnne's sometimes-wobbly self placed second in a regional competition with women who could roll off lutzes like Spanish "R's." That was a big thrill.

On Ray's videotape, it's evident that, what she lacked in lutzes, she made up for in verve. In a sparkly, gold-flecked suit, her reddish-blond hair tied back with a scrunchie, she spirits onto the ice, teetering through tricks like a kid who's trying really hard and having a good time, her feelings written on her face. A mustachioed judge behind the glass is beside himself with glee, continuously grinning from ear to ear.

"That judge was on my side!" she says now, sitting up higher in her chair.

The bratwurst cook-off wasn't quite as video-worthy, but she did make $250 for the skateboard park that day.

"It was fun, actually," she says. "I just smelled like a bratwurst for three days. I couldn't get it off of me. It's like up in your nose hairs." Chalk it up to a different year.

Laura Putre can be reached at [email protected].

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