Making history: Spence talks about 50 years in law enforcement

RAYMONDVILLE — Willacy County Sheriff Larry Spence has worn a badge for 50 years, from Raymondville to the White House.

Last night, Rio Grande Valley leaders gathered at the L.E. Franks Tourist Center to celebrate Spence’s career.

“Fifty years is a long time in any profession, but especially in law enforcement,” Spence said in a statement before the event. “Those years hold a lot of memories, most of which are good memories, but also a few that were not.”

One of Texas’ longest-serving sheriffs, Spence took office in 1985 — and he has quite a few stories to tell.

“I’ve had the privilege of working with, and alongside, many good men and women, and it’s been a blessing,” he said. “I couldn’t have gotten to this point in my career without them and I am grateful for their assistance and especially their friendship.”

Born in Indiana, Spence joined the Air Force in 1966, serving on its police force from California and Illinois to South Vietnam.

After returning to his hometown of Clinton, he worked as city patrolman.

There, he married Maria Reyes of Raymondville, with whom he had a son, Gary.

After six years with the Clinton Police Department, he moved his family to South Texas, starting a job as a Willacy County sheriff’s deputy on June 1, 1976.

Nine months later, his wife was killed in a car accident, leaving him to raise his son.

Under Sheriff Orlando Correa, Spence climbed the ranks from deputy to lieutenant.

In 1979, Spence was working as a deputy when he stopped Raymondville’s legendary onion strike from turning violent.

“Someone threw something at some farmers and when one of the farmers got out of his car and walked across the street, I saw a gun in his hand,” Spence said in an interview in 2004.

“(Strikers) started grabbing for the gun and just as I grabbed it, the hammer went down on my thumb, but it didn’t fire because my thumb was in the way,” he said.

“There’s a good possibility it could have hit someone because there was a crowd of people around, and even if it didn’t hit someone, it probably would have caused a riot.”

After Sheriff Raul Arevalo won election, Spence served as chief deputy.

In 1984, Spence took a job with the Willacy County District Attorney’s Office, working as an investigator under then-District Attorney Edna Cisneros.

On Jan. 1, 1985, Spence was sworn in as sheriff.

Today, Spence is wrapping up his eighth term, running unopposed in November’s general election.

“I’m doing a job I love doing, and hopefully we’ve made a difference in some lives along the way,” Spence said.

For decades, Spence has served the community.

For his work with organizations such as Texans’ War on Drugs, then-President Ronald Reagan invited him to the White House for a conference.

Through the years, three Texas governors have honored him with awards.

Today, Spence serves as chairman of Communities Against Substance Abuse, or CASA, which he has served for 22 years.

On the state level, Spence serves as chaplain on the Sheriffs Association of Texas’ board of directors.

On the Texas Border Sheriff’s Coalition, he serves as a vice chairman.

Spence also serves on the board of the directors of the Southwestern Border Sheriffs Coalition.

Awards decorate his years of service, from the J. Edgar Hoover Award for Distinguished Police Service, law enforcement’s Silver Star for Bravery and Texas Department of Public Safety’s Directors Award.

A member of First Baptist Church in Raymondville, he and his wife Vicenta continue their involvement in Raymondville’s National Day of Prayer, a program he helped launch 22 years ago.