RAYMONDVILLE — It’s the end of an era in Willacy County.
Sheriff Larry Spence, the Indiana-born lawman who won the county’s badge 34 years ago and has held it since, has decided not to seek re-election as he wages his battle against cancer.
“I still get a little teary-eyed thinking about walking away,” Spence, 72, said this week from his home. “It’s been my life.”
During the last week of June, Spence began feeling sick.
“I haven’t really been sick in my life,” he said.
Then on July 2, he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, found in its second stage.
“It came out of nowhere,” he said.
Now, he’s half-way through chemotherapy to treat the cancer he believes might stem from his exposure to Agent Orange during his stint in Vietnam.
“I haven’t had any problem with the treatment,” Spence said. “Everything’s going great. I feel good. I’m alert.”
As he continues chemotherapy, Spence, currently Texas’ second-longest serving sheriff, has decided against running for another four-year term in the November 2020 general election.
“I’ve been doing a lot of prayer, seeking God’s guidance,” Spence said. “I decided not to seek re-election. It was a real difficult decision to make. I love taking care of people.”
Meanwhile, he’s focused on completing his term, which expires Jan. 1, 2021.
“I plan on being on until that time to finish off the term,” he said. “I’d rather be at my office taking phone calls and catching up.”
Spence said a steady stream of emails continues to remind him of the community’s deep regard for his years as the county’s top lawman.
“It’s been a blessing — people coming forward, thanking me for having been blessed by my service,” he said. “It makes me feel good that I’ve made so much of a difference in so many lives.”
At the Sheriff’s Department, Chief Deputy Joe Jimenez will remain in charge until Spence returns.
Since he began working with department in 2007, Spence has been his “mentor,” Jimenez said.
“He taught me a lot and I’ve learned a lot,” he said. “It’s been great. He’s going to be missed by a lot of people.”
On Oct. 26, the community will gather at American Legion to hold a barbecue fundraiser to help Spence pay medical expenses.
Jimenez is counting on a big crowd.
“Everybody knows Larry,” he said.
The early years
Born in Indiana, Spence joined the Air Force in 1966, serving on its police force from California and Illinois to South Vietnam.
After his return home, he was working as a patrolman in his hometown of Clinton when he married Maria Reyes, a Raymondville native with whom he had a son, Gary.
After six years with the Clinton Police Department, he moved his family to South Texas, where he took 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.
Makings of a legend
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 (a bullet) 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 serving a chief deputy under Sheriff Raul Arevalo, Spence decided to run for office.
On Jan. 1, 1985, Spence was sworn in as sheriff.
Today, Spence is close to wrapping up his ninth term in office.
Three decades of service
After 34 years, he’s become a legend.
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, which he has served for 25 years.
On the state level, Spence serves as chaplain on the Sheriffs Association of Texas’ board of directors and on the Texas Border Sheriff’s Coalition, he serves as a vice chairman. Spence also serves on the board of 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 25 years ago.