Linda Nijakowski remembers well getting her driver’s license and buying a Harley Davidson motorcycle. It was around 1970, in an era when women were expected to act more genteel.
“Even my own father thought I was going to go join a Hell’s Angels (club), because I got a tattoo and I pulled up on my Harley, and he just didn’t like it,” she said. “He thought it was a disgrace.”
Fifty years later, 65-year-old Nijakowski still enjoys hopping on one of her five Harleys – usually the Street Glide – for her transportation to work or for a serene trip through bucolic settings. As of September, however, she officially retired after 32 years from something she considered more enjoyment than work: teaching others to experience her joy of motorcycles.
In 1988, the Swanton native became one of the first women in the state trained as a bike instructor for a new program through the Ohio Department of Public Safety. Until two weekends ago, Nijakowski spent decades overseeing the riding education of thousands of area motorcycle enthusiasts eager to hit the open road.
She announced her impending retirement from the program early this year, and in March received the Distinguished Service Award from the state. It was the culmination of a second career that gave Nijakowski the satisfaction of watching others from ages 15 to 80s gain the freedom of the road she cherishes.
She said it’s hard to let go of watching people advance through the learning process, “and by the end of the week they’re riding, and they’re so happy, and they’ve been successful, and I’ll miss that, because the happiness you see in people’s eyes – it’s worth a million bucks.”
Not only did she teach the 16-hour state course, at times over 35 or 40 weekends in a year, Nijakowski also instructed novel riders the past 12 years through a longer program offered through the Toledo and Napoleon Harley Davidson dealerships.
While the state course, begun in Ohio in 1988 through the national Motorcycle Safety Foundation, has changed over the years, it still focuses on the basics. Students start in a classroom, then progress to actual riding. Passing written and riding tests is required. Younger students must have a temporary permit, and the class is mandatory for anyone under 18 years old. All students learn on smaller motorcycles provided by the state.
“It’s very ‘building block’ process. One exercise leads to another to another,” Nijakowski said. “You don’t just put them on a bike and say, ‘Sure, go ahead and ride.’ This is getting them the safety aspects they need, getting them some experience before they head out on the street.”
Most students pass the first time, some the second time, and some retake the class. And although Nijakowski seldom dismissed people from the course, there were some who simply couldn’t succeed in earning their motorcycle endorsement.
“If you really feel that there’s a risk to themselves or to others you have to take them aside and say, ‘Hey, maybe this isn’t for you, or maybe you need to do a little more homework and read the workbook and then come back.’ We try our best to get people through the class and get them riding because you want them to be safe out there.”
At the beginning, some men refused to take a motorcycle course taught by a woman. “I would tell them to call our state coordinator if they had complaints, and she also was a woman,” Nijakowski said with a laugh. “That has changed over the years. You don’t get treated any differently as a woman.”
Fascinated by motorcycles from an early age, Nijakowski began scooting around on her aunt’s moped at 13, participating in dirt riding and trail races. When she was old enough to get a driver’s license she bought her first Harley, at a time when women traditionally rode on the back of their partner’s bike.
“When I got old enough to have a license I was out on the road,” she said. “That was a time when a lot of people thought that all motorcyclists were rebels. (Now) you just meet all kinds of people on motorcycles, all walks of life, all professions. It’s just something people like to do.”
Nijakowski was inspired to become an instructor after losing a close family member in a 1984 accident.
“It wasn’t his fault, but I always said if there was some sort of training in motorcycles and motorists’ awareness to watch for motorcycles, it would be safer out there,” she said. “I truly loved the program.”
She received several instructor achievement awards, the State of Ohio’s Instructor Excellence Award in 1995, and the prestigious Motorcycle Safety Foundation Award in 1996. She also served as a peer observer for other instructors.
The course was more personable years back, Nijakowski said. “A lot of the stuff – especially with the COVID – all the classroom has been online this year. And naturally, when you’re outside you keep your distance…and you have to wear masks,” she said. “(But) I go places and I’ll have people come up and say, ‘Hey Linda, it’s me. You were my instructor.’ I hear that all the time. They remember me, and that’s always a good feeling.”
Also employed elsewhere for nearly four decades as a business office manager, Nijakowski still puts in about 5,000 miles a year on her motorcycles, preferring quiet countryside routes where she can bask in nature.
“I love night riding, I love the smells when you’re on a bike,” she said. “You can smell the freshness in the air, you can smell the leaves, you feel the temperature changes, even the dampness. There’s just so much there, and the sense of just freedom, and you’re by yourself. It’s just a different feeling.”
Nijakowski, who also owns cars, has never been involved in a motorcycle accident and rides in all but hazardous weather. She always wears a helmet, boots, gloves, long sleeves and long pants, and eye protection.
“I think a motorcycle is only as dangerous as the person that’s riding it,” she said. “A motorcycle is an extension of its rider. People are on cell phones, people don’t see you. So you have to ride knowing that. A lot of people just aren’t aware, or the whole world’s in a hurry now. As a motorcyclist you just have to be really watching for that and know that you need to be 100% on top of things, because not everybody else is.”
Rob LaCrosse, Nijakowski’s son-in-law and a fellow motorcycle instructor since 2006, taught his first class with her. “She gave me my first lesson on, ‘Hey, this is the real part of it now,’” he said. “No matter what time I got there she was already there setting up and getting ready for the day.”
Nijakowski made an impact on his and other instructors’ careers, LaCrosse said, adding, “She really took us under her wing.”
Over the years, former students dropped by with their motorcycles to say hello to Nijakowski, he said.
“Some of the students had taken her class 20 years earlier,” LaCrosse said. “There’s not a single place that we go that we don’t run into people who took her motorcycle class. She was really invested in the program and the success of it. Her departure is a huge loss to the program.”
A national member of both the American Motorcycle Association and the Hog Owners Group, Nijakowski decided to retire from teaching to regain free weekends and spend more time with her family. Her husband, Timothy, six children, in-laws, and grandchildren are all motorcycle enthusiasts.
“The family that rides together stays together,” she said.
And while she won’t miss instruction on cold mornings, Nijakowski will miss her students.
“When I go to class I just love it. I never thought of it as a job,” she said.
Reach David J. Coehrs at 419-335-2010.