Indianapolis' famed newspaper salesman Chuck Lynn helping others

December 26, 2015, 12:47 PM

— -- INDIANAPOLIS -- Legends come in all shapes and sizes at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Some are just more famous than others.

Chuck Lynn doesn't drive a race car, but, within the confines of Gasoline Alley, he is almost as well known as many of the men and women who do.

He's a fixture in the IMS garage area and infield -- and in the media center, being smart enough to realize that a room full of journalists is a room full of easy marks for a savvy newspaper salesman like himself.

If you attended a race or even a practice day at the speedway over the past 35 years, you've probably seen Lynn. You probably remember him, too. It's hard to forget a grown man riding around on a custom three-wheeled cycle, maniacally screaming "Pa-per!!"

Lynn faces challenges every day. He suffers from cerebral palsy and is affected by depression. But he might be the hardest-working man at the Brickyard. I've had a seat in the media center since 1993, and I can't remember a day when Chuck Lynn didn't try to sell me an Indianapolis Star or a USA Today.

It's hard for him to do simple things that you and I take for granted -- like walking and talking.

But every day, he's out there making a living. If he's not at IMS, he's selling papers at Indianapolis Colts or Indiana Pacers games.

Lynn's story is comparatively well known; he has even written a book sharing many of his experiences. But I learned a lot more about his life away from IMS a couple of weeks ago when he was the guest of honor at a fundraising event for the Circle City Clubhouse called -- appropriately enough -- the "Chuck Roast."

Clubhouse International is a nonprofit multinational organization formed in 1994 but with its foundation spanning all the way back to1948 when a group of people recently discharged from one of the New York state mental health hospitals came together in the belief that they could help support one another.

According to the World Health Organization, 1 in 4 people will be affected by some form of mental illness; 1 in 17 by a severe and pervasive mental illness that will affect them throughout their lives.

People with mental illness who become Clubhouse members participate in running local branches by answering phones, cooking and cleaning. In exchange, they are provided support and assistance to help them pursue work or education goals and secure stable housing.

"If you give people a place where they have something meaningful to do, and where they feel like they belong, that's actually a very fulfilling thing for people -- particularly for people with mental illness who already have that sort of disease that can make you question your own self-worth," said Jay Brubaker, executive director of the Circle City Clubhouse.

"We don't do traditional mental health treatment; we don't have therapists, case managers, doctors on site. What we really are trying to address are the issues of social isolation and the social stigma that happens to people with mental illness.

"We're treating that by providing a place where people are valued, where they feel like they belong and can contribute."

With Brubaker helping to translate Lynn's hesitant speech, Lynn told the audience of about 150 at the roast in his honor that he was skeptical about the Clubhouse when his mother and his caseworker first encouraged him to try it out. But he credits his original Clubhouse experience with helping him work through his severe depression.

"For seven years, I had been so depressed, and the people at the Clubhouse helped me understand what was going on with me," Lynn said. "Before, I wanted to stay home all the time, but my caseworker said, 'Chuck, I want you to go -- the people might help you.'"

In 2010, a reduction in state funding caused several Clubhouse branches in Indiana to cease operation, including the one where Lynn was a member. His response was to work tirelessly to create a new Clubhouse.

It took nearly five years, but the Circle City Clubhouse is a reality, operating from a building in an industrial area on the west side of Indianapolis.

Some 320 Clubhouses in 34 countries provide services for more than 100,000 members every year.

At the event in Lynn's honor, several of his fellow Circle City Clubhouse members joined him on stage to share stories of their lives.

"Today I want to help give back to other people with mental illness," Lynn told the appreciative audience. "I want to help them get their lives back, too. I want to thank all of you for coming out -- thank you from my heart."

The fact that IndyCar Series star Tony Kanaan agreed to emcee the Chuck Roast speaks volumes about the level of affection the Indianapolis racing community has for Lynn.

Kanaan met Lynn in 2002 when TK first competed in the Indianapolis 500 and has quietly become one of Lynn's biggest supporters.

Kanaan even invited Lynn to join him in the traditional Indianapolis 500 winner's photo shoot on the yard of bricks after his 2013 victory.

"Chuck has become a really dear friend, and I want to do anything I can to help him out," Kanaan said.

"He could be expecting people to feel sorry for him and help him out in any other way, but the guy still works.

"I make fun of him all the time," Kanaan continued, breaking into a chuckle. "I tell him I'm pretty sure he drives a Ferrari and parks three blocks away from the speedway, then pretends he's broke so people can give him money. I tell him he lives in a mansion, and he laughs so hard."

That's the thing about Chuck Lynn. He obviously has to overcome significant hurdles every day, but he makes the best of the fate he has been dealt.

Brubaker credits Lynn as the driving force in creating the Circle City Clubhouse, which has grown from five members when it started in February to 75 today.

"He's very involved with our working group," Brubaker noted. "He's on the board of directors now in addition to being a member of the Clubhouse.

"We aim to continue to grow," he continued. "Our goal is that, within five years, we will have the capability to serve between 400 and 500 people living with mental illness in the greater Indianapolis area."

Not surprisingly, funding is the biggest challenge. A state grant helped the Circle City Clubhouse get off the ground, along with gifts from private donors.

"We're still very much in the startup phase and have some renovations to our building coming up for which we could use some financial support," Brubaker admitted. "We're new in Indy, so having people just advocate what we're doing and spreading the word that we are out here helps a lot."

In the year he has been involved with the Circle City Clubhouse, Brubaker quickly recognized the effect that being around racing at IMS had on Lynn. But he also sees the positive impact Lynn has on the people he interacts with.

"The first time I met him at his apartment, I was amazed by all the pictures of him with the racing drivers, including one of him kissing the bricks with Tony Kanaan," Brubaker said. "Since then, I've gone with him to the track and I've seen not only the affection that everybody around the speedway has for Chuck but the joy that he gets out of that.

"It's really kind of special, and it's a testament to what people can do, especially from Chuck's side, when they're given the opportunity and the chance to be someone in that position," he added. "The speedway has really kind of adopted Chuck, and he's become an institution and a part of what goes on there.

"To me, that's something that's really encouraging and exciting to see."