As His Bloom Fades, Buddy Spong Is Still Planting
Editor’s Note: This story was reported and written in mid January.
By Maggie Beamguard
“Give your loved ones your flowers while they are living,” Angie Spong wrote in a melancholy social media post on Oct. 29. Her father, Buddy Spong, a longtime bellwether of Moore County with a 31-year career at Sandhills Community College, had been just diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and given a grim prognosis.
And so Angie has seized the moment, inviting those who know Buddy to reach out with love and support.
“I want to give all of Buddy’s myriad admirers the chance to tell him how much he means to them,” she wrote before concluding, “urging you to hold your loved ones close, because life can change so fast.”
A Bouquet of Succor
What followed Angie’s request was a super bloom of “flowers.” Countless messages sprang up from near and far. Hundreds of cards have since been gathered into a bouquet of succor. Hundreds more Facebook messages were showered upon the Spongs along with emails, texts, phone calls, visits, meals and actual flowers.
“We’ve been treated quite royally,” said Ann Spong, Buddy’s spouse of 50 years.
Among the scores of messages, Buddy has heard from former students and colleagues at Sandhills, acquaintances from his term on the Moore County Board of Education, fellow Rotarians and Kiwanians, Salvation Army comrades and more.
It could have been overwhelming. But Buddy says the shared memories and comments and reminiscing have been beautiful.
“It’s amazing that these people come back through the mist with musings and laughter,” he said. “I’ll go and sit down in front of my old antique, big boxed computer, and I’ll sit there and just cry. And it’s basically these wonderful tears. Heavens.
“God, it means so much.”
Even though the messages draw out full-bodied emotions, Buddy says it’s been a gift. Most surprising has been some of the messages that describe vignettes that, for Buddy, were perhaps fleeting but made lasting impressions on those who share them.
Angie believes her father’s legacy will be broad and wide through all the people he has taught or helped out of a tough spot.
“People see what a unique, bright person he is,” she said. “I think about the ripples in a pond and how those keep spreading and spreading and spreading, and I really think there’s almost no end to the impact that he’s had. All these different people then impact other people and then other people, so I think his impact has been infinite in that way.”
Where Angie sees ripples, there is another apt metaphor for what Buddy has been so busy doing all these years through his work and acts of service — planting seeds: seeds of knowledge, seeds of love, seeds of encouragement, seeds of compassion, seeds of service.
The messages he has received are the flourishing of the seeds of relationships he had been sowing. It’s a lucky few who get to enjoy the full bloom of their life’s labor.
Sowing Quality Seed
It’s no accident that Buddy Spong is an actual gardener. Puttering around his yard in Seven Lakes North is a favorite activity.
“If he hadn’t become an educator, he would have loved to have gone to school to learn how to grow things to sustain the planet,” said daughter Angie.
As it was, Buddy planted knowledge, compassion and excellence everywhere he went.
He grew up in Concord and excelled in school. Buddy, who played varsity basketball, participated in Beta Club, attended Governors School and became a Morehead Scholarship Finalist. He was voted by his Northwest Cabarrus High School classmates as “Most Likely to Succeed.” The Outstanding Senior Award recipient would prove them right.
Buddy attended Appalachian State with his high school sweetheart, Ann, whom he would later marry. After earning a degree in math education in 1974, he worked for a year at Hardin Park Elementary School in Boone, before joining the faculty at Sandhills Community College.
He worked at the college teaching reading, English, math, study skills and speech. He moved into an administrative role, serving as the dean of enrollment from 2001-2005 and then the dean of students from 2005-2006.
Buddy’s reach went far beyond the classroom. He was also executive director of the Moore County unit of the Salvation Army from 1977 through 2001. During those 24 years, the annual budget grew from $600 to more than $300,000. The all-volunteer organization ultimately raised well over $2.5 million for Moore County residents in need of assistance before the unit was absorbed into a Fayetteville branch.
It provided Christmas joy to over 8,000 underprivileged youth; vision, dental, and healthcare to hundreds of schoolkids; kept lights and heat on in hundreds of homes; and financial support for tuition, books, housing and emergency needs for hundreds of college students so they could stay in school.
Buddy started and directed the Carolina Eye Association Foundation, which helped with vision screening and provided aid to children needing glasses and other vision assistance.
He joined with the West End United Methodist Church, where he is a member, and Kenneth Fulcher to start the WEUMC Food Pantry, which is still active today.
After he retired from Sandhills in 2006, he worked as the executive director of the Moore County Unit of the Red Cross until 2011, when he retired for keeps.
Buddy has been involved in numerous community organizations including: Seven Lakes Lions Club, Rotary Club of the Sandhills, and Seven Lakes Kiwanis. He was a charter member of the Seven Lakes Volunteer Fire Department, serving as treasure, training officer and captain, and a charter member of the Seven Lakes Rescue Squad, serving as captain. He also served on the board of the Seven Lakes Landowners Association from 1977-1982.
And he served for nine years on the Moore County Board of Education, one year as vice-chair and two years as chair.
It’s an impressive list of accomplishments. It’s no wonder Buddy earned the title “the Energizer Bunny” at Sandhills.
“Buddy had more energy than any three people rightly ought to have,” said former SCC president John Dempsey. “He always deployed it for the common good. He is the world’s greatest optimist. He could be in the middle of a lake in a boat without a paddle and figure a way to swim to shore. He is just a wonderful guy and great with students and great with colleagues.”
A Tender Gardener
To only focus on Buddy’s remarkable achievements would be to miss his greater impact on the community.
“I think on paper you can list so many different accomplishments and so many different organizations he’s been a part of and all this work that he’s been responsible for that’s made a difference in people’s lives,” said Angie, “but what I keep coming back to is the way that he’s made people feel.”
When people in Moore County hear Angie’s last name, she says they immediately light up in recognition of her father.
“I think it speaks so much to the difference that he’s made in the world and in so many different lives. It just ripples and ripples and ripples.”
Buddy’s former students can still recount specific lessons they learned from him, she says. He connected with them in a lively, memorable way.
“He genuinely cares about people. He radiates love, and he really wants to make a difference in people’s lives,” said Angie. “He is so genuine. People feel that, and they connect with that.”
Buddy credits two powerful experiences with profoundly impacting his approach to life. The first came in his teenage years during seven weeks at Governor’s school. The environment opened his mind to the greater world and especially civil rights. “It was an awakening. Nothing in my life changed me the way those seven weeks in the summer of 1968 did.”
Another experience as an adult comes close. He was accepted as one of 40 Kellogg National Fellows in the class of 1986-1989. It was a leadership development fellowship that included travel around the world and rich conversations around key topics with the biggest thought influencers at the time. He expanded his understanding of servant leadership during this season.
A Bud in Bloom
Few people know Buddy’s full name is Arthur Jennings Spong, Jr. His given name sounds formal and important, he says. “But that’s not me. I’m Buddy.”
His father first called him Bud, which caught on and eventually everyone called him Buddy, even his students.
“I use that name because it is the most real. It is the most honest. And it is the one I appreciate most because it’s a greeting as well as an acceptance of my role.”
Like Buddy’s name, he keeps his values simple.
“My core values go back to the teachings of Jesus that we’ve unfortunately moved away from, those core values of caring, and love, and sharing and just being there for people. It’s so simple to me.”
In his years as an educator, he taught English and math and speech but those lessons were always secondary. “What I’m really trying to teach is life.”
For Buddy, living a full life means sharing with others.
Angie recalls her father’s commitment to serving the community. “While he was being an educator and touching so many lives in that way, he was always always serving in all kinds of other ways as well,” she said. “We’d be sitting in the pews at church and his little buzzer would go off and he’d have to run out for the Fire and Rescue Squad.”
She also remembers the donation letters for the Salvation Army that poured in every Christmas. “We would have boxes and boxes and boxes. And I would help by opening the envelopes, and then we’d pull out the checks. I started collecting the stamps.” It was a family affair.
“I’ve always just seen this remarkable model of service in my life,” Angie said. “It’s always been a part of how he lives.”
As a father, Buddy had high expectations and hopes for his children to live up to their potential. His son, Alex, remembers him as being supportive and caring, offering correction when necessary. “Both my parents mean the world to me. He’s always been there for us no matter what.”
Sprouts of Joy
As the messages continue to cascade upon the Spong household, they have given Buddy cause to consider his legacy.
In the notes, Buddy has observed one thing being repeated above all. People shared over and over again how they never passed by Buddy when he didn’t have a smile for them. Or they mention how they always left his classes with smiles on their faces.
And that’s what he hopes to leave now — A smile.
“As simple as that might sound, I hope I left a smile on many faces over the years. Because I’m hoping that means that people felt better at least for a little bit of time because of the encounter. And I know I always did. So it was a reciprocal opportunity.”
Smiling takes him back to his name. To be “Buddy” is to be the kind of friend that nurtures flourishing relationships.
Of all of Buddy’s accomplishments, he is proudest of his family.
“Every time I look at them I get teary eyed,” he said. “And when I think of legacy, there is a little five-year-old that I hope is part of that legacy.”
He speaks tenderly of the apple of his eye, his granddaughter Vivian, whose photos plaster the Spong’s home.
“No one could have loved her more than Poppy, and nobody could have been prouder of her,” he wants her to know. “And no one’s expectations could be higher of her. And I love her so much. I don’t know how many times I’ll be able to say that over the next couple of months, but it will be a lot.”
Buddy’s tears flow appropriately and easily at these thoughts. Gardens, after all, need the rain as well as the sun to grow.
He openly admits that sharing his emotions has never been a problem for him.
“For me it just pops out, and there’s nothing I can do. But it does feel so good to come through and to think about all these people and experiences. They are tears of joy. I thank God for the ability to do that.”
The Beauty of a Flower
The poet Wallace Stevens said, “Death is the mother of beauty. Only the perishable can be beautiful, which is why we are unmoved by artificial flowers.”
The beauty of a flower is that it fades. The beauty of Buddy’s life as it has unfolded, and as he courageously approaches its end, is in his authenticity. There is no guile, nothing artificial or plastic as he anticipates the fleeting time that remains to him.
His voice cracks when he talks about the uncertainty of the length of days in front of him.
“They tell me I could have, maybe 50 or 80 good days. There is no guarantee or anything. That’s 80 more days I can see my grandbaby girl. And 80 more hugs. And 80 more chances to say ‘I love you.’ 80 more days of the people I care most about.”
The cancer diagnosis surprised Buddy, who had been warned by his doctors for decades that his major health concern should be his heart. ”But now I’ve been told by those who know better that this is the way it is for me. And yet all of a sudden, now I have a clearer understanding of what this is all about.”
He describes the diagnosis as a wake-up call offering the kind of clarity about our human purpose we all seek.
“It’s about life! It’s about the preciousness of life.”
And by his estimation, every moment left to him counts in a more profound way.
“Now all of a sudden, you think ‘Oh! you have some time!’ How are you going to spend that? What are you going to say?’”
These are essential considerations and just a few more seeds he is planting. It will be up to those who remain to bring them to bloom.
Contact Maggie Beamguard at email@example.com.