Edward “Nat” Speaks, circulation director of The Independent, died Tuesday after waging a valiant year-long battle with cancer. He was 57.
Speaks, a 1973 Paul G. Blazer High School graduate who began working for the newspaper as a carrier and stuffer while in high school, is survived by his wife of 39 years, Cindy Speaks, a fellow Blazer Class of ’73 member who works as a secretary at the school; a son, Adam, and daughter, Sara, both of whom live in Lexington; and three grandchildren, Ellie, 8, Olivia, 5, and Sophia, 17 months.
In an August interview, Speaks said he learned he had cancer in November of last year when he went to have a lesion on his neck tested. The test showed positive for cancer, but also indicated the disease was in his lungs. Subsequent tests revealed the disease had spread to other parts of his body, including his colon and liver.
Cindy Speaks said her husband’s cancer was already at Stage 4 by the time it was detected.
“Today is a sad day at the Independent,” Publisher Eddie Blakeley said. “Nat has been a part of the Independent family for parts of five decades and it will not be the same without him here. He was a valued co-worker and a friend to all. I will miss the many conversations we had not so much about work, but about his wife, Cindy, his children, Sara and Adam, and his grandchildren. He was definitely a proud dad and grandfather.
“He fought a valiant battle and never once did I see him down or depressed about the situation,” Blakeley continued. “I have never met anyone in those circumstances that faced it head on with a more positive outlook. It’s like he decided that he was going to enjoy every moment that he had left and not let his situation prevent him from doing that.”
In August, a Blazer alumni group known as Tomcats for Tomcats presented Nat and Cindy Speaks with a “Wildcat Weekend” getaway — an all-expense-paid trip to New York City the first weekend of December to watch the Kentucky men’s basketball team play Providence at Barclays Arena in Brooklyn. In addition to game tickets, the package includes air fare, two nights of hotel accommodations and spending money. Speaks’ co-workers also passed the hat and raised an additional $425 for the couple.
According to Independent Editor Mark Maynard, a member of Tomcats for Tomcats, the group decided to put together the special surprise for the Speakses after another group member, Luann Serey, ran into Sue Fosson, one of Speaks’ co-workers, and learned of Nat Speaks’ illness. Serey brought it to the group’s attention.
With Nat Speaks passing before he could make the trip to New York to watch his beloved Wildcats play, the money that would have been spent on the trip will instead be given to his family, Maynard said.
In making the presentation to the Speakses, TFT member Mike Craft related a humorous anecdote of how he and Nat took a church youth basketball team to a tournament in Ohio the same weekend UK was playing in the Final Four in 1996. Because they both wanted to watch the game so badly, they brought along a small TV, he said.
On the trip home, Craft said, he juggled the TV on his lap as the reception faded in and out. Speaks, who was driving, kept asking for updates on the game, which he said he was unable to give him because the signal was so poor.
“Finally, I looked up and neither of us were watching the road,” Craft said. “It’s a wonder we made it home safely.”
A friend to all
Speaks is the third longtime Independent department head to pass away in the past five years. The others were Business Manager Rick Rakes in 2008 and Editor Mike Reliford in 2012.
Speaks and Rakes were close friends. In fact, Adam Speaks said Monday his father, a religious man, had recently told him Rakes was the first person he wanted to see when he got to heaven.
Independent Mailroom Manager Bengy Barrett, a 50-year employee of the newspaper, recalled working with Speaks in the mailroom when both were teenagers, and how Speaks didn’t really fit in with the “rambunctious” crowd who worked in the department in those days because of his quiet, gentle nature.
Later on, Barrett said, he and Speaks both worked as circulation district managers, where he said they “passed a lot of papers together.
“Back then, 99 percent of the carriers were kids, and they’d drop out on you in a heartbeat, and, when they did, you’d have to cover their routes,” he said.
Barrett recalled how he and Speaks both kept sneakers under their desks, not only for when they had to walk paper routes, but to wear during the daily in-house pingpong matches that were once a newspaper tradition.
Barrett said he remembered Speaks as being a “pretty fair” pingpong player. But what he said he’d remember most about him was how “he always had a positive attitude, even through the sickness. He was a devoted newspaperman, a devoted husband and father and he was my friend.”
Former Independent advertising representative Danny Duncan, a close friend of Speaks, echoed that sentiment.
“Nat was the most positive person I’d ever met,” said Duncan, who became friends with Speaks in the early 1970s while working at the newspaper. “He never said to me ‘Why me? This isn’t fair or I don’t deserve this.’ He never said that to me or anybody.”
Duncan, advertising director at The Morehead News, said Speaks was also a good athlete and he played on bowling teams, softball teams and basketball teams with him while working together at the newspaper.
“I don’t know if The Independent had a more devoted employee. He worked until he physically couldn’t work anymore.”
Duncan and Speaks were almost like brothers, he said. “That’s how I felt about him. He knew what I was thinking and I knew what he was thinking. We could finish each other’s sentences.”
Speaks also had a devotion for Cats — as in Kentucky Wildcats and Ashland Tomcats, Duncan said.
“He did love his Cats,” he said.