Meet the Milan Bike Guy, making kids happy one free, fixed bike at a time

Another Milan resident used winnings from a game show in California to pitch a turquoise canopy over Vern White’s work area so the sun stays off his back. The local Ace Hardware installed a light in his shed so White could keep working in the cooler twilight hours.

It all happened without asking, Mattingly said.

“You’ll find other communities that want to do the right thing, or think they ought to be doing the right thing,” Mattingly said. “This is a separate thing. It’s absolutely authentic.”

When asked why the bike exchange has worked so well in Milan, Mattingly, Wilman and the rest of the group standing in White’s driveway all pointed to the same person.

“Other communities don’t have a Vern,” Wilman said. “That’s the key.”

White said he never expected to become known as “The Milan Bike Guy.” He learned to ride a bike when he was five years old. Or more specifically, he started out “rolling down the hill and falling” on his first two-wheeler until he found his balance.

White grew up in Genesee County, near Burton. Since graduating from Davidson Adult Education in Ypsilanti in 1990 at age 21, he’s done a bit of everything. He worked for several years with his “dad by choice,” following a French-Indian war reenactment group around the state and selling “traditional items” — pots, pans and other items European settlers historically traded with Native Americans.

He later moved to Ann Arbor for a short stint before settling down in Milan. For 11 years, he and his wife operated a daycare out of their home in Mill Race Shores. Then, in the same shed where he now listens to a mix of Blues and rock classics while working on bikes, he made a living building and selling custom hunting rifles.

At age 44, White went to Monroe Community College to pursue a welding certificate. Upon graduation, he worked as a welder and fabricator for seven months — less time than he was in school — before a neck injury forced him to medically retire. While his wife has continued to work as a nanny, he has not been able to return to the workforce.

Since then, White’s been riding laps around Milan and searching for a renewed sense of purpose.

Two months ago, he found it.

“The bikes just kind of fell in my lap,” White said. “I wanted to try to fix some bikes to get some kids out riding.”

That wasn’t White’s plan even four months ago, but “Like Dad used to say ‘if you want to make God laugh, make plans.’”

Now 53, White is the one laughing as he wades four-feet deep through a sea of ​​bicycles.

Fixing and rehoming bikes has turned into a full time job. White spends eight to 10 hours a day working on bikes and meeting with the people who intermittently walk up and down the driveway throughout the day.

“Even at eight o’clock at night, there’ll be a knock on the door,” White said. “Somebody who’s looking for a bike, or needs a bike fixed, or is turning one in.”

Looking back on the sudden turn his life has taken since metamorphosing into the “Milan Bike Guy,” White said the support of his community was pivotal. White might have been the catalyst for change in Milan, but if the people around him had not added their support, he said he’d just be a guy who had fixed up a couple of bikes one time when he was bored.

“It’s not about me. It’s about the community — it’s about everybody,” White said. “If people didn’t donate the bikes and donate the funds, I wouldn’t be doing this. I wouldn’t be the Milan Bike Guy.”

As the summer comes to a close, White is already making plans for the next couple of months. On September 3, he’ll be riding laps — about 120 miles total from dawn until dusk — around downtown Milan to raise money for the Children’s Cancer Research Fund. He hopes the event, “Milan Rides for Kids,” will give riders in the Milan community a reason to unite around the two things he sees Milan becoming known for in the future: bikes and positive change.

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