Washington People: Cris Baldwin

Art, motorcycles and the quest for the Iron Butt

Cris Baldwin, assistant dean and registrar in the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts, is also the five-term president of Women On Wheels. (Credit: Joe Angeles/WUSTL PhotoS (3))

Cris Baldwin has a secret life — if you can call being one of the most prominent women in American motorcycling a secret.

In her 22 years at the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts, Baldwin has risen from graduate program assistant to registrar to assistant dean. During that same period, she founded the Heartland Chapter of Women On Wheels® (WOW), the nation’s largest female-focused motorcycling organization, and served four terms as international president. Her fifth term starts in January.

We sat down with Baldwin to discuss long rides, wayward art students and the best way to jury-rig a busted shock absorber.

When did you start riding?

I grew up on a dairy farm in a little town called Alma, Wisconsin, right on the Mississippi River. My older brother had a minibike, and the first chance I got, I took off. I think I was 7. Mom always teased that she had three sons instead of two. [Laughs].

But your mother also rode.

Yes, she started when I was in high school. But it was a different time. Being in a rural community, she tried to find other women to ride with. There just weren’t any.

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What inspired you to start the Heartland WOW chapter?

Well, I thought this would be a way to honor Mom and recognize the things she struggled with. I’ve done long rides by myself, and there are good things about that. But last summer, I went to Key West with seven other women. That kind of camaraderie is beyond anything I could have imagined or asked for.

Your degree is in business education, and you taught for a few years before joining WUSTL in 1991. What drew you to business?

I’m kind of dating myself here, but computers were just starting to come into everyday use — my parents could never have afforded one — and that was really exciting to me. Remember the old Apple II’s? Then, when my daughter was born, I took some time off, and my husband was hired on by McDonnell-Douglas, which brought us to St. Louis.

It is funny that I ended up at an art school, because I’m not an artist. But I was lucky. The people who hired me said, ‘We just need someone who can keep the day-to-day stuff running.’ And Margo Trump, the former registrar, was a great mentor.

I should admit, as a Sam Fox alumnus [BFA ‘93], that Margo helped me graduate on schedule. Something about summer school credits that I had neglected to transfer…

Oh, you’re one of those. [Laughs].

That was Margo’s reaction, too. But let’s get back to motorcycles. What was your first bike?

I used to borrow my husband’s, but he’s much taller than me. So, in 1993, he got me a Harley-Davidson Sportster. I rode home from the dealership in the snow on Christmas Eve.

Your husband, Thomas, is an aircraft machinist. Didn’t he build your second bike?

Yeah. It’s licensed as a special construction, but it’s actually a modified Harley. It has Fatboy Wheels on a Softtail frame, with a Wide Glide front end. Started with a panhead engine but has an “Evo” in it now.

I still have it, but it has close to 300,000 miles.

Baldwin goes for a ride through Forest Park.

So what do you ride now?

When I turned 50, Thomas surprised me with a brand-new Harley-Davidson Switchback. I came home for dinner and opened the garage door and just collapsed in the driveway. [Laughs] Some girls get roses, and other lucky ones get motorcycles.

Tell me about Women On Wheels. How big is the organization?

We have about 2,000 members in 75 chapters across the United States. Right now, there are more women riding than ever before. About a third of U.S. motorcycle owners are women.

What sort of activities do you sponsor?

The national organization sponsors two big events each year — the President’s Croozapalooza, which I started, and the International Ride-In™. But each chapter sponsors events. There’s always something going on.

What’s the longest ride you’ve done?

I’ve come close to getting my Iron Butt, which is covering 1,000 miles in a 24-hour period. Once, my speedometer cable broke seven miles short.

Do you maintain your own bike?

[Baldwin lifts hands to show oil-stained fingers.]

OK then. How’d you get those?

Yesterday coming to work I hit a pothole and broke my shock absorber — it split in half, part was dragging on the ground. So I started looking around the studios for something to fix it with. I ended up tying it back in place with a couple lanyards and the string out of my hoodie.

For a business major, it sounds like you’ve developed a pretty art-school approach to problem-solving.

What can I say? You guys have rubbed off on me.

Baldwin’s custom license plate.