The first inkling Independent Circulation Director Nat Speaks had that a “budget meeting” he was supposed to attend Friday with Publisher Eddie Blakeley might not be on the up and up came when Blakeley started leading him up the stairs to a conference room on the second floor of the newspaper building.
“We never meet up here,” Speaks said, mainly because his and Blakeley’s offices are both on the ground floor.
When he reached the upstairs conference room, Speaks found a number of friends, family members and co-workers waiting there to present him with a very special surprise.
Thanks to the efforts of a group known as Tomcats for Tomcats, Speaks, 57, who is battling cancer, and his wife, Cindy, were given a special “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 passed the hat and raised an additional $425 for the couple.
Speaks, a 1973 Paul G. Blazer High School graduate who began working at the newspaper while he was in high school, said the gift was “a total, total surprise.” He also said neither he nor his wife of 39 years had ever been to New York City before.
Speaks said he learned he had cancer in November when he went to have a lesion on his neck tested. The test showed positive for cancer, but it also indicated the disease was in his lungs, he said. He subsequently learned it 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 diagnosed. Since the diagnosis, she said her husband had undergone treatments at six different hospitals.
Nat Speaks said his doctors were currently focusing on shrinking a large tumor on the side of his neck.
Cindy Speaks — who also graduated from Blazer in ’73 and who works as a secretary at the school — said her husband had remained in good spirits throughout his ordeal, which has made matters easier for the rest of the family.
The Speaks’ grown children, Adam and Sara, both live in Lexington. The couple also have three grandchildren, Ellie, 8, Olivia, 5, and Sophia, 14 months.
Adam Speaks, a standout soccer player during his time at Blazer, was at Friday’s gathering, with Sophia in tow.
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 Speaks’ illness. Serey brought it to the group’s attention.
“We’re always looking for people who are in tough situations,” Maynard said of the group, which was the outgrowth of a 2009 deep-sea fishing trip to Florida that a group of six 1975 Blazer grads arranged for a classmate, Greg Estep, who’d been diagnosed with cancer.
Maynard said the strength and courage Nat Speaks has displayed in the face of a deadly disease has been an inspiration.
“His spirits have been so good,” he said. “Not once have I heard him complain or say ‘Why me?’ That says a lot about his character.’”
Maynard also noticed that Speaks had missed very few days of work since being diagnosed.
“As sick as he’s been, he’s been here every day that he could,” he said. “And just the other day, he was out helping his neighbor trim his hedges.”
Maynard said the group knew the Wildcat weekend would be the perfect gift for Speaks, given his long-time love for UK basketball.
In making the presentation to the Speakses, TFT member Mike Craft related a story 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.”
Financially, the Speakses packages was the largest project TFT has undertaken to date, “but it was also the easiest one to raise money for,” said Bob Fosson, one of the founders of the group. He said the group had secured the necessary funds within just a few days of an email going out to its members.
However, Fosson, who lives in Warner-Robbins, Ga., said costs aren’t a concern when TFT sets out to do a good deed for someone.
“It’s all about what would put a smile on that person’s face,” he said. “It can be something as simple as a bracelet for a little girl, or a phone call or prayers.”
He also noted the group had never said “no” to a request.
Fosson said he and the other classmates who went on that 2009 fishing trip made a commitment to Estep, who passed away the following year, that they would continue the mission of “paying it forward.”
He said the group currently spans nine states and its members keep in touch via email and social media.
“There’s not a week that goes by that we don’t communicate with each other,” he said.
KENNETH HART can be reached at email@example.com or (606) 326-2654.