CAPE GIRARDEAU, Mo., May 15, 2014 – Southeast Missouri State University student James Spence and his son Zachary Spence, both of Cape Girardeau, will celebrate the completion of their degrees together when they participate in commencement festivities May 17 at the Show Me Center. Although the two will be seated at the ceremony with their respective colleges, Zachary plans to push his father in his wheelchair to the stage to receive his diploma, a long anticipated moment for both.
Having his son at Southeast at the same time has been a blessing, says James, especially since James is recovering from a stroke.
“His courses are mostly in sciences and mathematics, so he helped tutor me through algebra quite a bit,” James says. “He lives with us as well, and his assistance has been invaluable during my collegiate experience. He has done everything from pushing my wheelchair to driving me to take photos or do an interview to even introducing me to Burrito-Ville,” a popular student eatery near the campus.
Zachary says, “Because of his stroke, we have grown very close.”
Zachary will graduate with a Bachelor of Science with majors in biology, with an option in biomedical sciences, and chemistry, with a biochemistry option. He is double minoring in mathematics and physics.
James will graduate with a Bachelor of Science in mass communication with a major in journalism and a minor in agriculture.
“I have a lot of interest in that area,” James said.
The Spences relocated to southeast Missouri from Raeford, N.C., in 2003. Jim’s wife, Linda, wanted to be nearer to her aging mother, and Jim planned to train as an X-ray technician after a 20-year career in which he installed floors.
But six months after arriving in Missouri, he suffered a stroke in 2004 that ultimately changed his life’s path forever, he said. He recuperated for several months in the hospital, during which time his wife, Linda, lovingly nursed him back to health.
Six and a half years later, he decided to pursue an education at Southeast and enrolled in classes in 2010. It was the first time he had taken classes since 1980, he said. For the past four years, James has attended classes with assistance from his wife, Linda. She has dedicated herself to personally attending every single class with him – no small task for a registered nurse employed by Saint Francis Medical Center in Cape Girardeau.
“She goes to all of my classes and takes notes. I often tell people that it’s an awfully good thing I can read her handwriting,” James said. “Seriously, though, she does take excellent notes, they’re very pertinent, and I can even tell that her spelling has improved over the last few years.”
In addition to attending classes, James also writes stories and takes photos for The Arrow, Southeast’s student newspaper.
“I enjoy writing, and I figured that I used up my physical body as a flooring installer for almost 20 years, but now I’ll work mentally,” he said. “That’s the main thing I’ve learned from this – you definitely have to be versatile.”
Dr. Karie Hollerbach, professor and chair of Southeast’s Department of Mass Media, had James in one of her classes.
“Jim and Linda were a great team to have in my ‘History and Philosophy of American Mass Media’ course. Jim was always ready to contribute to the discussion, and the three of us would often continue the conversation about that day’s topic after the class session had finished,” Hollerbach said.
Outside of the classroom, Zachary and Jim have been frequent visitors of Fitness Plus, a fitness and wellness center at Saint Francis Medical Center in Cape Girardeau. There, they have lifted weights together after Jim’s official physical therapy sessions ended, Zachary said.
“The trainers there were very helpful, and my father was extremely driven. He still is to this day,” he said. “Don’t let his talk of naps and lazy days watching ‘Around the Horn’ fool you. His work ethic is insane. In fact, when he began college in 2010 we, being males, made a challenge: who could get the highest GPA per semester. We do a lot together, from fitness to college, and I think that I am very lucky to have such a relationship with my father; a lot of people do not.”
James says he has learned a lot from his experiences.
“Students shouldn’t take an educational opportunity for granted. I feel like I’m so richly blessed for having been given salvation for my soul and an opportunity to enrich my life in the meantime, and all of this from a guy that 10 and a half years ago was in a hospital bed for a couple of months, unable even to feed himself and had a towel around his neck constantly (supplied lovingly by my wife) to catch his incessant drool,” James said.
His years at Southeast have been a learning experience for Zachary as well. He says college should be a time for students to learn something about themselves as well as their major.
“Whatever you want, you can have. It takes a lot of work, but it is always achievable,” Zachary said. “Don’t focus on or spend your time complaining how hard your classes are. Focus on how you will achieve excellent marks. Make a plan. Triage. Do the reading before class. This is a time to find out who you are and what you want. Cherish it. It goes by in a snap.”
Zachary says he has enjoyed everything about his Southeast experience.
“I have been lucky enough to make very good friends with fellow sufferers –oh, I mean classmates — and teachers that can push you beyond the false limits you have set for yourself,” he said. “Most of all, though, I think my favorite memory is yet to come: graduating with my father.”