Daily Herald column rekindles long-lost friendship; now they're married
Their story begins decades before that day in 2007 when Helen Root happened upon a Daily Herald column about 80-year-old bicyclist Rennie Ballagh and his recovery from a life-threatening bike accident.
A lifetime ago, Root, now 78, had enjoyed a friendship with a Rennie Ballagh, an accountant and businessman from Canada who sometimes worked with her husband, Bob Root, on his deals. Ballagh and his wife, Aline, had lived near the Roots in the Arlington Heights neighborhood of Regent Park.
Helen Root, who did the books for her husband's business, often would send one of her daughters over to the Ballaghs' house to have him check the figures.
"They had the cutest little white dog they kept in a basket on their bike," Helen Root remembers of the Ballaghs. Rennie and Aline Ballagh had a son named Steve. The Roots had daughters, Robin, Aimee, Beth and Pam. Aline Ballagh, who grew up in Canada and spoke French, agreed to host dinner for an exchange student from France who was living with the Roots.
"We were such good friends," says Rennie Ballagh, who is now 87. "We knew each other's families so well."
The families drifted apart with the demands of new businesses and busy families. The Roots ended up in St. Charles. The Ballaghs in Richmond. They exchanged Christmas cards for some years.
"But you know how that goes," Helen Root says, explaining how the friendship faded with time and distance.
Widowed in 2004, Root moved into an addition in the back of the Mount Prospect home of her daughter Beth and son-in-law, Joseph Zander. She kept busy with her daughters and their families and went on trips with her siblings. She crocheted and embroidered, and became an excellent quilter. Life was good.
"I had no intention of ever getting married again," she says. Then came that day in 2007.
"I was sitting here at the computer and the paper came, so I opened it up and read," she remembers. She came across Todd Underwood's bicycling column that told the story of how Rennie Ballagh had recovered from a horrific bike accident and was riding again with the McHenry County Bicycle Club.
A medication issue caused his heart to stop during his bicycle ride, says Rennie Ballagh, who fell, cracked his helmet, fractured his skull and broke three bones in his eye socket.
"I hit the road so hard that I defibrillated myself," he says. "My doctor still can't believe it."
Root went online and found Ballagh's phone number. She never expected anything to come of it.
"Oh, heavens no. I just wanted to say hello to somebody I hadn't seen in a while," she says. "We must have talked for two hours."
She told him about her husband's death from kidney issues at age 68. He told her about his wife's death from leukemia in 1992 at age 58. They both drove Volkswagens and Ballagh was bringing his to a car dealership near Root, so he suggested they meet for breakfast at an egg place at Randhurst Shopping Center in Mount Prospect. They had a fine conversation.
"We'll have to do this again," he said.
"So the next time he had an appointment for his car, he said, 'Let's have lunch,'" Root remembers.
They found that they had more in common than their cars and some moments in the past. They both were fans of bichon frise dogs and owned the same model of motor home.
"He loves Olive Garden, so the next time, we went to McHenry and had dinner," she says. "I always found him enchanting. He has the cutest Canadian accent."
A standout performer in bicycle races at the Illinois Senior Olympics, Ballagh medaled in the state competition in Springfield in 2009, qualifying him for that year's National Senior Games Associations competition in San Jose, California. Soon after, his 43-year-old son, Steve, training for a triathlon, died of a heart issue while practicing his swimming. In his grief, Ballagh was thinking of giving up his dream of racing at the nationals, but Root helped change his mind.
"I'll go with you," volunteered Root, who figured she could visit her daughter, Aimee, who lived in Fremont, California.
"Neither of us had any intentions," says Root, who visited with her daughter and then left for a planned Caribbean cruise vacation with other relatives. She flew back just in time to catch Ballagh's final race.
Taking time to chat and pose for photographs during his ride, Ballagh finished fourth, just off the medal stand. They loaded up the bike trailer and headed for Illinois.
"He had never seen the Grand Canyon and neither had I," Root recalls. "So we stopped to see it, and things kind of took off from there."
They began spending time at each other's homes and the friendship became a relationship.
"We have so much in common," Ballagh says.
"One night, we were sitting and watching TV and he said, 'You know, I think we ought to get married,' and I said, 'I'm all for it,'" Root says. "Emotionally, I think we were already married."
"It's a waste of time if we do don't anything with this fabulous friendship," Ballagh remembers thinking.
They eloped on Jan. 23 of 2014 while spending time at her home in Florida. "Then I came home and I sent an email and carbon-copied everyone," Root says. "The kids just absolutely love him."
Their story also brings joy to Underwood, the former columnist who lives in South Elgin and wrote the piece that reunited them.
"Wow. That is really cool," says Underwood, 52, who is the director of multimedia at the Pepper Group marketing business in Palatine, and remembers that column. "I'm elated. That is awesome."
Together, the Ballaghs have 16 grandchildren and a bichon frise named MacKenzie in a salute to Bob Root's Scottish ancestry. And they share a busy life. She was planning to cheer him on at the national Senior Olympics in Ohio last year, but he crashed weeks earlier during a bike race in Hoffman Estates on a very hot day. This time, he needed a shoulder replacement. He completed his rehab and therapy and expects to ride again this winter in Florida.
"I love the speed," he says, adding that he clocked in at 51 mph going downhill on one of the three bicycles he rides.
"He's having fun, and that's the important thing," his wife says, noting that she now gets to share in that as well. "We're lucky."
Spouses: Ballagh plans to get back on his back after crashing during Hoffman Estates bike race