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Storytelling for Giving: For The Love of the Ride
What do motorcycles, Jimmy Buffett and the Maryland Legislature have in common?
They are all connected by one person: Delegate Kathy Szeliga.
Kathy, the current Minority Whip in the Maryland House of Delegates, first hopped on a bike back in her early 20’s, when someone left it at her home in rural Colorado.
“I used to hitchhike to work,” says Kathy, “because we didn’t have a car. Then a friend left their 400 street bike at our house while he went off to New Hampshire, so I picked it up and started to ride. My husband rode dirt bikes in middle and high school and that’s how I learned to like bikes. But when the guy left his motorcycle behind, and I started to ride myself, that’s where I really fell in love.”
It was the love of the bikes and the love for her man, two things that changed her life. Kathy and her soon-to-be husband Mark, took off from Maryland in their late teens, moving out to rural Colorado, only pennies to their name, but love in their hearts. “We eloped when I was 18 and he was 19,” says Kathy. “We had about $5 in our pockets, but decided to get married anyway. We had nothing when we started, no car, no home, we just moved into the mountains of Colorado. We eventually bought a car, but until then we hitchhiked.”
Eventually, Mark got the car, and Kathy found rides until she got the bike. The couple have been motorcycle enthusiasts for nearly as long as they have been married, and Kathy, who joined the Maryland Legislature in 2010, has been fighting for the rights of bikers, by trying to change the rules of the road, because as Kathy knows, when it comes to riding, it’s safety first.
“I put a bill in last session for lane splitting and lane filtering for motorcyclists,” says Kathy. “Lane splitting is popular in California and in other countries like Europe and Australia, where there are many riders.” “Lane splitting” refers to the practice of riding a motorcycle between clearly marked lanes for traffic traveling in the same direction. “Filtering” refers to the practice of riding a motorcycle between stopped motor vehicles to get to the front of the pack, typically at a busy intersection. To Kathy, who lives the experience, she says it actually makes riding safer for everyone on the road, especially the biker.
“I can best describe lane filtering this way,” says Kathy, “think of yourself going to Ocean City, Maryland and traveling to the Bay Bridge. Sometimes traffic is backed up for miles at the bridge. The traffic might be creeping along at 2o mph and lane filtering allows the bikes to go between the cars, still at a slow speed, maybe 10 to 15 mph. Why? A lot of motorcycles are air-cooled and in 95-degree heat, the bike overheats, as does the rider on it. It actually helps the biker to get out-of-the-way and speeds up traffic. It also makes it safer for the motorcycle rider. Let’s face it, riding is inherently dangerous, though they are much more aware than even normal drivers, since they aren’t distracted by things like cellphones and changing stations on the radio. But too many riders get rear-ended by drivers while being forced to sit still, stuck at congested intersections and in traffic jams.”
The bill didn’t pass this session, but that doesn’t mean Kathy is giving up hope or is she finished trying to help improve the rules of the road for motorcyclists. After all, she and Mark get on their bikes whenever they can. If the weather is warm and the day is sunny, Kathy says it’s simply the best when you can hit the road.
“I love the quietness and solitude of it all,” sighs Kathy. “No radio, no cellphones, nobody bothering you, just getting out in the fresh air and nice weather. We love to ride out in the country. We’ve been to Gettysburg and out to Western Maryland, as well as riding up north in Baltimore, Harford and Cecil counties. When it’s an afternoon, weekend or just a nice day, there is nothing better than jumping on the bike and heading out for a few hours.”
As Kathy describes it, riding the motorcycle can be like music for the soul. And Kathy knows a little about good music, even legendary singers, after all, she got to be a Jimmy Buffett fan, up-close and personal.
“Our claim to fame is Mark and I got to be house sitters for Jimmy Buffett,” says Kathy. “When we were living in Colorado, we answered an ad in the Aspen Times and got hired to be Buffet’s house sitter. He owned a number of homes and he came up two or three times when we worked for him, which lasted for about a year-and-a-half. I got to be their nanny for a few weeks when the regular nanny took time off. Buffett was low-key, very kind. Sometimes you meet movie stars and others in Aspen and you can tell they are phony, but Jimmy was a real guy.”
“We weren’t buddies, but he would invite us over for parties. He never treated us like the “help”. In fact, after we had our first child we decided to move back to the Baltimore area. When we loaded up our truck and cars and started to head east, Buffett was playing at Red Rocks, just outside Denver and he invited us to the show. I got to sit backstage and watch him, about 20 feet away during the entire concert. My husband got invited out to the after-party following the show.”
“You can do what you wanna
Do what you like
Twist a big ol’ number
Ride a motorbike
It’s alright, it’s alright.”
– Lyrics by Jimmy Buffet, Morris’ Nightmare
The move back to Maryland seemed like the right thing to do for the Szeliga family, since Kathy and Mark have roots there. The couple actually met while working during the summer down in Ocean City. Kathy was making subs at Billy’s Sub Shop just off the pier and Mark worked as a busboy at the Embers Restaurant. The two were next-door neighbors on 5th street, in downtown OC. Though it wasn’t the Bama Breeze or Margaritaville that brought them together, at least it was a locale that would make even Jimmy Buffett proud, finding love at the beach!
Once they moved back from Colorado to Maryland, their next job was raising their two boys. Eventually, Kathy went back to school at night and got a degree in education, teaching briefly in Baltimore City, while Mark, who had cut his teeth doing construction in Colorado, started his own general contracting business, a family-owned business he has now run for more than 30 years.
Fast forward to 2004, Kathy had taken a job with State Senator, now Congressman, Andy Harris. While Harris was still in the Maryland Legislature, Kathy ended up working as his Chief of Staff and says she noticed there were not many small business owners who had been elected as lawmakers in Maryland. Kathy says bills were being passed which didn’t favor the entrepreneur, so in 2010 when a seat opened up in District 67, Kathy ran for office and won. Then, in 2016, amidst a crowded field of Republicans vying for the opportunity to run for the US Senate in Maryland, Kathy won the Republican nomination. Though unsuccessful in the general election to win the US Senate seat, Kathy took 18-of-23 counties in the state and got nearly 1 million votes; she even outperformed the presidential candidate statewide, the first time a Senate candidate received more votes than the presidential candidate in recent history.
Today, Kathy is the current Minority Whip in the Maryland Legislature and serves on the Health and Government Operations Committee. She has served on the Appropriations Committee and Environment and Transportation Committee. Kathy continues to fight for those who are part of her passion – motorcycle riders, because Kathy wants everyone on the road, bikers and drivers alike, to experience a safe environment when traveling.
Kathy says she herself normally rides the bike with a helmet, jacket, pads, and boots. “It makes me crazy when I see young girls in shorts and flip-flops riding on the back of a bike,” says Kathy. “I know they don’t have to wear the other safety gear, but they should. I didn’t used to wear the motorcycle boots myself since most were so ugly, they looked like snow boots. I didn’t like them at all, but I remember being in a store and the only pair they had in my size were those big, black ones. After trying them on I asked the guy working there, ‘what do you think?’, then he told me a story. He said he used to wear only tennis shoes, ‘but one time this little old lady who was driving didn’t see me, she bumped into me, not hard, but hard enough. I laid my bike down, went over to the curb and noticed my toe was missing.’ “After that, Kathy says, “I told the guy at the store, thanks, I’ll take the ugly boots. I’ve upgraded to a more stylish pair since then, but I never ride without them.”
Kathy says she also loves what the motorcycle community is doing for others. “I’ve gotten connected to the American Motorcyclist Association, (https://www.americanmotorcyclist.com/), and I’ve met a lot of young riders because of that, as well as the veteran riders. Most motorcycle groups and organizations, as well as the individual riders are very patriotic people. They love the military and first-responders and many are military veterans themselves. It’s very diverse, you see the seasoned, interesting guys with the long beards who tell great stories and ride with their wives and girlfriends on the back of the bike or next to them, all the way down to the 20-somethings, just finding out about the joy of riding for the first time. In Maryland, there are some excellent places to learn how to ride and to learn the rules of the road. My husband and I took our course at Harford Community College, passed the test and got our official Maryland licenses in 2010.”
And whether new laws get passed or not, Kathy knows she and her husband Mark will keep getting out on their bikes, it’s simply in their blood.
“We just love to ride,” says Kathy. “Mark and I will map it out, say, ‘hey let’s find somewhere to go about 90 minutes from here,’ “ride up, have dinner, and ride back. It’s a great way to wind down, really clear your mind of all distractions, to think about the beautiful world and this great country we live in. It’s a wonderful opportunity to think about all the blessings we have.”
There have been many blessings for Kathy, since the days when she and Mark ran away to Colorado, to raising their family, to today, leading the way as a lawmaker in Maryland. There’s been a constant thread that’s run through those years for Kathy and Mark, married nearly 40 years now – it’s not just the love – but also the love of the ride.
This story as well as all of the others on our website are written by Mark Brodinsky, an Emmy-Award winning television producer, speaker, popular blogger, and published author. You can find more information about Mark on his website at http://markbrodinsky.life/