SE regent buys Harley motorcycle from Leno

Thursday, November 10, 2005
Cape Girardeau resident John Tlapek was invited to the "Tonight Show" after buying a celebrity-autographed Harley- Davidson to help Hurricane Katrina victims. (NBC photo)

John Tlapek bought the bike for $500,100 to help hurricane victims.

John Tlapek is not one who gets starstruck easily.

So it wasn't the 78 celebrity signatures on the new motorcycle that made the Cape Girardeau resident and president of Southeast Missouri State University Board of Regents want to buy it.

Or that fact that it was being sold by "Tonight Show" host Jay Leno. Or even so much that it was a Harley Davidson, of which he already owns two.

For Tlapek, it was about helping people in need. So the reason he bid $500,100 on e-Bay for the motorcycle was that the money would go directly to the victims of Hurricane Katrina.

"I thought it would be a good thing to do what I could do to help those who were negatively affected by the tragedy in the Gulf region," he said Wednesday.

So one night when he was watching "The Tonight Show," he saw that Leno was auctioning off the Harley Davidson with celebrity signatures. Tlapek knew that Leno had done it before, auctioning off motorcycles after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001 and later for the Southeast Asian tsunami last year.

The online bidding was over at 7 p.m. Sept. 29, Tlapek said. The bidding accelerated the last few minutes, almost doubling from $230,000. Five minutes later, Tlapek was notified by e-Bay that his was the highest bid.

But Tlapek, a private equities investor, never expected that he would get a call later by Leno's assistant asking that he come to California to appear on "The Tonight Show."

But when he did get the call, he decided to go -- but it wasn't because he longed to be on television.

"I just thought it would be interesting," he said. "And it was."

On Oct. 5, Tlapek appeared on the show for a few minutes, chatting with Leno. Leno asked a few questions, though Tlapek said he can't remember what they were, it happened so fast. After the taping, he went back on stage and got to spend a few more minutes with Leno.

"He seemed like a real nice guy," Tlapek said.

Tlapek said he was drawn to bid because one of the companies he's a controlling shareholder of has customers in the Gulf region. He was moved to try to help. All of the proceeds went to the American Red Cross hurricane relief fund.

Once the motorcycle was delivered -- Tlapek won't say where he's storing it, except that it's not his Cape Girardeau home -- it took him some time to figure out which signature was which. Luckily, the show sent him an instructional video.

Bill Cosby and Arnold Schwarzenegger wrote their names on the gas tanks. Gena Davis, Shaggy and Jessica Alba scribbled their names on the saddlebags. Matthew McConaughey and Jennifer Love Hewitt autographed the front fender.

None of it meant that much to Tlapek, who would rather have had the news gone unnoticed. Except for two interviews, Tlapek has declined all others, and he's had requests from all across the country, he said.

"I would rather it have flown under the radar," he said.

But it's not the first time Tlapek has been charitable. He regularly donates to charities. In 2003, he spent the summer traveling the country with his dog, Charley, donating nearly $500,000 to about 20 children's charities and challenging their local residents to donate, too.

Those who know Tlapek weren't surprised that he would give that amount of money to a worthy cause.

"But I was surprised that he was on the 'Tonight Show,'" said fellow regent Edward Matthews III of Sikeston. "It's kind of a thrill to know the person and work with the person on the board who had gone on the show."

Matthews said that Tlapek doesn't brag on his contributions.

"During our most recent meeting, he never even mentioned it," Matthews said.

As far as the motorcycle, Tlapek said he doesn't have any plans for it right now. For him, that's almost besides the point.

"I just have always felt like it was important to give back to the community," he said. "That doesn't have to mean a donation of dollars. It can be a donation of a person's time or talents. It's just important to give back."

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