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Community, CHS sports loses a friend in John Speaks

Posted: January 18, 2011 3:08 p.m.
Updated: January 19, 2011 5:00 a.m.

As a three-sport athlete --- and a state champion in each --- in the late 1950s at Camden High, the 6-foot-4 John Speaks stood above the crowd.

Long after his Bulldog playing days were over, he continued to cast a long, loving shadow over his community and his alma mater.

On Sunday, at the age of 70, John Speaks passed away at his Camden home, leaving a legacy like few others in the world of Kershaw County sports and business. But to pigeon-hole Speaks like that would be an injustice to a man who was fiercely loyal to his church and more so, his family.

"We lost a giant in the county and in Camden, not only in the business world, but also in the sports world. John was just a great, great guy," said retired Camden businessman and longtime friend of John Speaks, Charlie Nash, from his home in Murrells Inlet.

Words like caring, thoughtful and devoted husband and father were the first words out of the mouths of John Speaks’ long list of friends and family, many of whom stood in line for nearly an hour or more to pay their final respects to their fallen friend and his family members at Kornegay Funeral Home on a wet and chilly Monday evening. The two-hour visitation window would not be enough on this night as friends showed up before the 5:30 p.m. start and were still in line more than two hours later.

The retired co-owner of Speaks Oil Company, along with his twin brother Joe, John Speaks graduated from Wingate Junior College and was a member of First Baptist Church of Camden. He was also a member of the American Legion Post 17, past president of the Camden Lions Club, and a two-time president of the Camden Bulldog Club.

For those in the sports world, however, John Speaks will be remembered for being a member of Camden High’s 1957 baseball and football state championship teams. In 1958, he played on the Bulldogs’ state championship basketball team. Along with his twin brother, the Speaks’ stood out above the rest of the squad in their team photos.

"Back then, they didn’t have the size that you do these days," said former Camden football coach and longtime friend of the Speaks family, Billy Ammons. "I remember watching him play basketball, watching him play football and baseball, the whole works. They were just huge for back then."

In a town in which family ties run deep in Camden High football, few ran deeper than the Speaks family. Three of his four sons followed in their father’s cleat prints. Robbie, the first of the trio, was a standout lineman at CHS who went onto play at Presbyterian College and is a member of current Bulldogs head coach Jimmy Neal’s coaching staff. Chris, a standout quarterback, was a 1981 North-South All-Star selection who went on to play at Furman University. Michael, like Chris, played in the 1986 North-South All-Star Game. The offensive lineman went on to play his college football at Presbyterian, like older brother Robbie.

All three Speaks boys played under Ammons while at CHS. The retired Bulldog boss had to be delighted in getting players from such strong bloodlines. Ammons’ older brother, Richard, was a high school football teammate of John Speaks, so the connection started long before Robbie Speaks ever stepped onto the practice field for Ammons’ team.

"With the boys all coming through and playing football and John’s involvement with the Bulldog Club, he was a big piece of the puzzle for Camden High athletics," Ammons said. "He was a great person to work with, to work alongside of and he was also a good parent, booster and fan …. the whole works."

Sometimes a parent, especially one who played the game, can second-guess a head coach, if not try and give him advice, whether face-to-face or from the bleachers. John Speaks was not one of those types, Ammons said. In fact, Ammons said he will never forget the manner in which Speaks supported his sons, their teammates, their coaches and the entire program.

"I was telling his brother Howard (Monday) night at the visitation that I could honestly say that John was probably the best football parent that I ever had. He never, ever questioned anything. It was always a matter of support with him," he said.

"I remember one time, in particular, when we were playing an important playoff game and Chris was the quarterback. John called me the morning of the game and told me Chris had a fever of 103 or something like that, and that he was going to take him to the doctor.

"John just called back and forth all day and finally, the doctor felt that it would be OK for Chris to play. It was things like that about John. He saw both sides of it. He saw the athletic side and he saw the parent side. And, he was as straight as he could be with all of that."

Speaks, like Nash, was a two-time Bulldog Club president, serving in that capacity in 1983-84 and again in 1987-88. While he could have been the most visible face in an organization which provides funding to all CHS athletic teams, Ammons, then the school’s athletic director and football coach, said Speaks shunned the spotlight. He was more comfortable making sure things were done right for the student-athletes at the school.

"John liked to stay behind the scenes when we did things," Ammons said of Speaks’ two terms as president. "He was always there saying, ‘I’ll help you do this or that.’ He just didn’t look to take credit for anything, but he was always one to see that things were done right."

Back then, the Bulldog Club met every Monday evening following a Friday football game. One of the focal points of the night was the showing of the game film from the previous week’s contest. Not all those film sessions were enjoyable, Ammons said. But regardless of the outcome, he knew that loyal supporters such as Speaks were there at his side to provide unwavering support.

"I remember when we used to show films of Friday’s game to the Bulldog Club, and, it wasn’t a pleasant thing to look at if it wasn’t a very good game," Ammons said. "But people like John, Dr. Paul Joseph and Charlie Nash, they were supportive no matter what. That was always a positive for me."

While actively involved in CHS athletics, Speaks, like Nash, were community business leaders. Many a youngster in the county has played youth sports with a shirt bearing the name of Speaks Oil Company across the chest. That is just part of Speaks’ ongoing legacy in his community from a business/sportsman standpoint.

"John was very active in everything that took place and was very concerned about everything which happened in Kershaw County and in Camden as a businessman," said Nash, whose two oldest sons played sports alongside the three Speaks brothers. "He had Camden and the entire county in his heart at all times in everything he did.

"And, as president of the Bulldog Club, he always wanted to make sure that our teams and our kids had everything that they needed."

Speaks was also a religious man and community activist. On both fronts, he helped Ammons become involved in the community, first as a member of Camden’s First Baptist Church and later, as a member of the Camden Lions Club.

"I grew up in Lugoff and I went to Lugoff First Baptist Church," Ammons said. "And, I remember talking to John about, maybe, coming over to Camden and joining Camden First Baptist Church, since we lived in town. John said to me, ‘I’ll tell you one thing, some of the finest people I know in this town go to this church.’

"I’ll never forget that. Shortly after that, we joined the church."

Tuesday afternoon, friends and family members filled the sanctuary at First Baptist Church saying their last good-byes to a man who stood out above the rest during his all-too-brief life, but who was humble to a fault. That, Ammons said, is the lasting legacy of John Speaks, who, along with his wife Nancy, instilled that same trait into their four sons and one daughter.

"He’s been a real close friend," Ammons said of John Speaks. "And when you look at his family, you see that they are such a close family and they have all been successful. They give you an idea of what the ideal family ought to look like; that’s the Speaks family."

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