How Lake City unicyclist pays homage to friend every July 4 parade (2024)

LAKE CITY — The first time Lake City resident Donald Ruhf and his friend Darren Vaughn rode in the Greatest Fourth in the North grand parade was 1977.

Ruhf said they were teenagers at the time and had grown up practicing different tricks on their unicycles. However, the duo decided to only ride their unicycles during the 1977 parade and didn’t showcase their hidden talents.

That would be the only time the friends rode together in the parade. When Vaughn passed away in 1988, Ruhf decided to ride in the parade in memory of his friend.

Since then, Ruhf has dedicated every ride in the parade to his friend.

“Every year that I ride, I ride now because of him,” Ruhf said. “That’s why I got back into riding in the Fourth of July parade. I ride my unicycle to share my love of the unicycle, like he shared it with me, with everybody else.”

The Greatest Fourth in the North grand parade was always something to look forward to, Ruhf said. His family owned property in Lake City and would visit every summer to enjoy the holiday festival.

One of his earliest memories of the parade was of his father’s company handing out cartons of milk to people along the street.

During Ruhf’s visits to Lake City, he would hang out with Vaughn and their friend group. Ruhf said Vaughn was always doing the weirdest things like riding his bicycle backwards or doing a wheelie all the way to his house.

One day Vaughn rode a unicycle to Ruhf’s house. Seeing this, Ruhf said he told him he could do that, too.

Since they only had one unicycle, Ruhf said they would take turns riding it until they fell over. Once Ruhf’s mother Marion bought him a unicycle, the pair would challenge each other to perform different tricks like riding backward.

The idea to pedal the unicycle with one foot came from another man who claimed he had ridden before. Though the man kept falling over, Ruhf said he and Vaughn decided they would give it a go.

The pair’s tricks would start involving each other and other people. Ruhf said Vaughn would jump over him or leap on his shoulder while on the unicycle.

Sometimes, they would grab one of Ruhf’s nephews or nieces and toss them back and forth while riding the unicycle. They would also practice on ice during the winter, which helped with their balance, he said.

No matter what they did, it was always a competition between the two friends.

“We would challenge each other,” Ruhf said. “That’s how we got good.”

“He was just always a little better than me.”

Ruhf said it was his idea to ride their unicycles in the parade.

He said Vaughn was a little apprehensive about participating, but gave it a go.

“I really don’t know what motivated us to do it,” Ruhf said. “We learned it and I just said ‘We know how to do. Let’s just do it.’”

Over a decade after their only ride together in the parade, Vaughn committed suicide. Ruhf said Vaughn had also sold his unicycle sometime before his passing.

Ruhf would make it his mission to find his friend’s unicycle.

He tracked the person who purchased the unicycle to Kokomo, Indiana, and gave him a call. Ruhf said the man on the other line told him he could have the unicycle.

Ruhf and his father then drove down to Indiana, retrieved the unicycle and fixed it up in time to ride it again in the parade to honor Vaughn.

“That was definitely emotional for me,” Ruhf said. “I try not to show it, but it was emotional. I rode it and I was very, very excited to be able to ride his bike. It meant a lot to me because I just know what it meant to him.”

Ruhf’s participation in the Greatest Fourth in the North has become a staple of the parade.

Every year, Ruhf dresses up and performs the tricks he and Vaughn used to practice as kids.

The toughest trick for Ruhf to perform is riding the unicycle with one foot. He said the challenge is maintaining your balance after picking up one foot and pedaling with the other.

Ruhf’s participation has grown into a family affair. His two sons Darren (named after Vaughn) and Andy have joined him in riding unicycles in the parade. Ruhf passed down Vaughn’s bike to his son Darren to ride in the parade.

His wife Cindy will drive a quad bike to hand the trio different props or shorter unicycles while the trio performs. Ruhf said the couple’s first date was at the Greatest Fourth in the North carnival.

He said other family members like his mother have ridden in the quad bike with his wife during the parade too.

“My kids enjoy it,” Ruhf said. “It’s a lot of fun. The people around really enjoy having us do it. That’s the big part of it is people really enjoy seeing us.”

Ruhf said his children started riding unicycles when they were in middle school. He said his sons have enjoyed seeing their friends along the street while riding in the parade.

One of the tricks the trio does together has Ruhf riding backward and grabbing his sons’ hands while they are riding frontward. They will then do some spins and ride around Ruhf in the middle of the street.

During one parade, the trio dressed up in their different high school football uniforms and passed footballs between each other on the unicycles. Ruhf said they then toss the footballs to kids in the crowd.

“It’s a great thing as a family because the kids really get into the themes,” he said. “They always want to do something for a theme and they really get into it.”

This year will be exciting for Ruhf because the exchange student from Switzerland his family hosted will be joining Cindy on the quad bike. He said the exchange student will also be here for his 40th high school reunion.

His sons also have big plans for what they’ll dress up as during this year’s parade.

Looking at the Greatest Fourth in the North festival itself, Ruhf and Cindy said they like how there are more kids’ activities that bring families to Lake City. As for the parade, the couple said they hope to see more floats and performance acts like theirs to entertain crowds for years to come.

“That’s the big thing we try to do is we try to make it entertaining for the kids,” he said. “I want the kids to have a good time while they’re there, so that’s what we do.”

How Lake City unicyclist pays homage to friend every July 4 parade (2024)
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