Spence is ‘cowboy tough’
By: Dick Hodgetts
Willie Nelson tells mommas not to let their sons grow up to be cowboys. I suspect most moms would disagree if their sons grew up like Rick. And grow up to be a cowboy was exactly what this Gwinett County youngster did. He took the whole route from All Round State High School Rodeo Champion GA to the Major League of his sport. Once it’s in your blood you go everywhere to follow the cowboy circuit: Douglas, Wyoming; Rapid City, South Dakota are hot spots on the cowboy dream trail, along with the great Houston Texas Rodeo. His specialty was calf roping, which involves riding after a calf, roping it, lifting the 250-300 pound animal, and tying it quickly. Now this cowboy had a secret life as well: he was continuing to go to the University of Georgia majoring in Animal Science, just in case this rodeo dream did not pan out.
His family seemed to tolerate this passion, with hopes he would eventually settle into something agricultural related before he broke his back, ribs, or head. The family convened every year at Pawley’s Island on the SC Coast. If you have not visited this coastal retreat, the homes are generally built on stilts as the high tide just about covers the island if the moon is right. The Cowboy does what all rodeo champions do: he finds a bale of hay, sets it on the ground, and ropes it from the second story of the deck. This is a bit unusual in coastal SC.
As luck would have it the Jim Markley family hits the Island the same week, with their lovely daughter, Karen, in tow. It is not difficult to see why a cowboy would be attracted to Karen, but a girl from the sububurbs paying attention to a cowboy-please! Before the vacation on Pawley’s Island is over, the cowboy is well on his way to being branded-permanently. Rick Spence, cowboy calf roper has met his soul mate: Karen Markley. His life is changed in ways he cannot fathom. All for the good. All for the very, very good.
After the birth of a child, he joins his Dad’s firm as an institutional stock broker. Big success follows. Karen becomes a teacher. A second daughter is born, and both daughters are smart and athletic. Dad hangs up the cowboy spurs and takes up participation in Triathalons-gets pretty good at it. No one issues a certificate but they have experienced the American Dream. Handsome couple, great kids, lots of friends, nice standard of living, residing in Morgan County GA-life does not get much better.
One day, driving a shiny truck from the Youngblood lot, Rick loses control of his speech during a cell phone call. A quick trip to Morgan Memorial Emergency Room, and Dr. Hodges tells him he has a small spot on his brain and he needs to be transported to Athens Regional for further tests. The neurologists advise him that he has a golf-ball sized cancerous tumor on his brain. Immediate dangerous surgery is required.
One of the great things about Madison, and especially the folks at Madison Methodist, and the very family oriented Ag South-where he now works, they rally for those in need. The next day, he updates his will, he asks Jeff Davis to preside at his funeral, and he sees 50 or more friends from his church as they line the hospital hallway. He simply has to survive this very, very risky procedure, he cannot let this many friends down; plus his own family. Like so many people in the prime of their life, it is almost incomprehensible to go from being in the top one percent physically as Triathalon athletes tend to be, to being at risk of losing one’s life due to a disease-in the space of three days. And now, the cowboy learns again how wise his decision was to fall in love with Karen. She becomes his advocate, care-giver, morale booster, and rock. Against formidable odds, the surgeons in Athens, the Methodist support team, the Ag South Management, his family, and his own internal fortitude he wades through the surgery, the chemo, and the follow-up operations. Fifteen months of pain, discomfort, frustration, encouragement, setbacks, prayer and happiness were just glossed over in the previous sentence.
Anyone who skates this close to mortality continually asks themselves: to what purpose is my life? Why me?
Why am I blessed-and other equally deserving people don’t have this chance? What role does God have for me? Rick and Karen are people of faith and this question is not easily answered.
Rick Spence travelled this week to Duke Medical Cen ter to again be tested-with good results. He and Karen sought out Laura Margaret Burbach and her Mom Sarah to offer prayers, support, and encouragement. And, maybe a tiny part of the answer is that the frail and yet very inspiring, Laura Margaret Burbach will gain just some bit of a boost from the cowboy who also survived with all the challenges tossed his way. This town needs both of them to show us just how precious is life, and how much the support of friends and neighbors means in dealing with a difficult disease.
And as an act of faith in their own future and in dedication to their grand parents, Rick and Karen Spence have opened a pick-your-own blueberry & blackberry patch out in Bostwick. Growing things by itself is an act of faith. Take your kids out and let them experience a treat, and tell them as they return home: “the blueberries and blackberries you picked, were planted by a tough old cowboy, who wants you to experience first-hand some of the blessings from his land.
Kids he and his family grew these because they see hope in the future.”