Ron Ruen and Judy Tjossem enjoyed 22 years of marriage. Before his death on Feb 14, 2020, the couple established a memorial fund to assist young cyclists.
Ron Ruen and Judy Tjossem enjoyed 22 years of marriage. Before his death on Feb 14, 2020, the couple established a memorial fund to assist young cyclists.

Area children in need of cycling equipment, or assistance getting a bike repaired, now have a helping hand, thanks to the late Ron Ruen of Decorah. 

A memorial fund for youth cycling has been established in Ruen’s name by his widow, Judy Tjossem, now of Buffalo City, Wis. Ruen, an avid cyclist, passed away in February after a decade-long struggle with a degenerative brain disorder. The fund exists to honor Ruen’s love of cycling while fostering a like sentiment in area youth. Monies are held at Decorah Bicycles in Decorah.

“Before Ron died, I told him that we’d be receiving some memorial money and wouldn’t it be nice to do something good with it,” Tjossem said. “When I mentioned a fund at the local bike shop to help kids, he was all for it. Ron always went out of his way to help people interested in the sport he loved so much.” 

One of the riders in Iowa’s very first RAGBRAI, Ruen was not only a passionate cyclist, but an accomplished one. “He competed in time trials and was always among the top in his age group,” Tjossem said. 

“He took two bike trips to tour England and Ireland, and he frequently did what he called ‘century rides’, where he’d bike 100 miles in a day. But competition was only part of it for Ron. Mostly he just loved to be active and out in nature. Biking allowed him to achieve both of those things.”

But about a decade ago, Tjossem noticed her husband was having some difficulties. “It started with little things,” she recalled. “Ron would bump into things, which was not like him at all. Then I noticed he was having problems with perception; he’d couldn’t pull a car straight into a parking space, or he’d drift into another lane while driving and wasn’t even aware of it. So we went to the doctor to check his vision, which was perfectly fine. Then he started having episodes where he’d just kind of space out, which made the doctors think he was having mini-strokes, or was experiencing the onset of Alzheimer’s. But no one could make an accurate diagnosis. It was very scary and frustrating; they could tell us what his condition was not, but not what it was.”

Finally, after two years of testing, Ruen found a diagnosis at the Mayo Clinic. The scans revealed areas of Ron’s brain that were deteriorating or shrinking. “They finally identified these symptoms,” said Tjossem, “as consistent with Olivopontocerebellar Atrophy (OCP), which was likely caused by exposure to Agent Orange that Ron had come in contact with during his service in Viet Nam.”

While relieved to finally identify Ron’s condition, the couple soon discovered there was little that could be done to stop the progressive nature of the disease. “In Ron’s case, the disease was attacking his cerebellum and the brain stem,” Tjossem said. “We learned that his condition would continually worsen and eventually kill him. The disease is quite rare, so not much is known about it and possible treatments.” Even more frustrating to the couple was the fact that the disease is not recognized by the VA (Veterans Administration) as linked to Agent Orange exposure. As a result, Ruen was not eligible for VA benefits.

Tjossem watched her husband’s once-healthy body grow weaker and weaker. Ruen first required the use of a cane to walk, then a walker, and finally a wheelchair. Though he gave up his regular bike early, Ruen did enjoy riding a 3-wheel bicycle for some time. “We had an understanding that he would always have his phone, and I would always have mine, when he went on that bike,” Tjossem said. “Then one day he tipped over and I had to go get him. I was not strong enough to lift him up, so had to run and find a neighbor to help. That was the end of the biking. Shortly after that Ron donated that bike to Travis and Josie at Decorah Bicycles.”  

Eventually, Tjossem could no longer care for her husband and he was moved to Barthell Eastern Star Home in Decorah. And while the life expectancy of most OCP sufferers is four years or less, Ruen lived with the disease for ten. “I think he lasted so long because his body was so strong going into it because of all his exercise,” Tjossem said. “His voice was the last thing to go, and that happened two years before he passed.” 

Still, the couple communicated well, and when Tjossem brought up the idea of the memorial fund to assist interested young bikers, her husband of 22 years was all for the donation. “When someone passes, we search for meaningful ways to honor their life,” Tjossem said. “Ron would be very pleased to know he’d encouraged anyone, but especially young people, to become interested in biking. The memorial personifies his life and his passion.” 

Note: Anyone wishing to contribute to the Ron Ruen Memorial Fund is encouraged to contact Decorah Bicycles at 563.382.8209.