Father/son tribute: 50 states in 8 days to help fire victims

Article printed in the North Kingstown Standard Times 



EXETER- An eight-day road trip through all 50 states was a father and son’s way of paying tribute to disc jockey Mike “The Doctor” Gonsalves who died in The Station night club fire in West Warwick.

In the early morning hours of Feb. 20, 2003, Gary Flanagan knew something was wrong. For nearly 15 years, he was a regular listener of Gonsalves’ late night WHJY radio show.

“I was delivering a route in Newport at 3 a.m.,” says Gary, an Exeter resident and a circulation manager for USA Today. “Paul Fuller and Geoff Charles were already on. They were talking about the fire and saying they hadn’t heard from Doc yet. They said ‘Doc, give us a call.’ You could feel that (the emotions) right then and there. It connected with me immediately.

“Many people were called upon to step up and help the healing begin, the victims and their families. We all are called on to use our talents for the benefit of others. My talent happens to be long distance driving.”

A couple of months earlier, Gary and his son, Peter, now a college senior, read the book Against the Clock: The Incredible Story of the 7/49 49 States in 7 Days by Motorcycle by Ron Ayres. It inspired them to want to try a similar road trip but at the time they were not sure in what capacity.

After The Station tragedy, Gary, who had only met Gonsalves once, realized what he was called upon to do. He would raise money from a 50-state road trip for the already established Doc Fund which was established to help victims of the fire and their families.

“They (Gary and Peter) were festing over it. They were bopping it back and forth,” relates wife and mother, Marie. “We didn’t know anyone who died in the fire. But, there’s the Rhode Island connection. You know somebody that knows somebody.”

Gary, a pro at sequencing efficient delivery routes for work, created an itinerary covering 50 states in seven days. With the help of Microsoft Streets & Roads and a similar mapping program by De Lorme he was able to determine how much time he wanted to spend at each location and the types of roads to use.

“We decided to go for speed. His (Ayres’) record was 49 states in seven days,” says Peter. “He did it on a motorcycle. I thought that seems feasible. We can do the same thing as him but don’t have to stop to sleep.”

Peter is quick to point out that the Flanagan family, which also includes sister, Lorelei, 19, and brother, Adam, 14, considers live music a family value.

“Something important to this family is seeing live music,” says Peter. “Experiencing it. The whole environment. It could just as easily have been us (in the fire).”

Peter prepared for the fundraising trip by creating a Web site www.50-7.com that is hosted by the University of Maine at Farmington where he is a philosophy/religion major.

On July 26, father and son piled into their 1995 Chevrolet conversion van, complete with a fold-down bed, laptop computer, television and VCR. It was an exciting moment for the 21-year-old who previously missed a family trip in 2001 that covered 50 states in 43 days.

“Going out (to Alaska) was more the vacation-type mode,” recalls Gary. “We stopped at one couple’s, Dave and Laura Boyer, in Girard, Ohio that we met through the Peter Frampton Fan Club.”

The trip officially began on Aug. 1 in Hyder, Ala. with the odometer at 125,633. The pair drove to Washington State and then boarded a flight to Maui, Hawaii on Aug. 3.

“We called Paul and Al on (W)HJY every day. We chitchatted and told them where we were,” says Gary. “A lot of this is grass roots. It’s word of mouth. I was hoping it would develop into a corporate sponsorship.”

A typical day consisted of Gary driving a 12-hour shift followed by Peter at the wheel for the next six hours. They took pictures of every state’s “welcome to” sign.

Along the way, the duo distributed flyers explaining their cause. A colorful map of the country and the words “The Doc Fund 50-7.com” were painted prominently on the van.

“I’m suggesting we’ll accept donations up to the end of the month. My short-term goal was $5,000,” says Gary.

As of Aug. 4, WHJY had received about $600 in donations and the Flanagans had collected $250.

“There was only one minor mishap,” says Peter. “On Aug. 6, in Indiana, I went the wrong way for 20 miles. A good 40-minute mess-up. It was interesting because my dad had a White Castle hamburger and milk and went to sleep. An hour later he woke up coughing and choking. I made the comment we were on (Rte.) 74 West. He said ‘you should be going east’.”

Gary and Peter arrived in Central Falls, on Saturday with the odometer at 134,196 and just one day later than they planned.

Peter describes it as a very satisfying feeling.

“It was a choking-moment type thing for me,” adds Gary. “Mike Gonsalves helped many people that he never really met get through the night. I can still hear his voice. It’s funny. You could connect with him.”

There is still time to make contributions. If interested, please make checks -payable to: Doc Fund/Rhode Island Foundation. Send to: The Doc Fund, c/o Clear Channel Radio, 75 Oxford Street Suite 302, Providence, RI 02905.