Texas’ second longest-serving sheriff steps down as Willacy County’s top lawman

'A good ride'

Recently retired, Larry Spence served 34 years of his 54 years in law enforcement serving as Willacy County Sheriff. (Maricela Rodriguez | Valley Morning Star)

RAYMONDVILLE — During the 35 years he wore his badge, Sheriff Larry Spence’s star touched the lives of most families across Willacy County’s farm towns and sprawling ranches.

On his office wall hung some of Texas’ top law enforcement awards including the J. Edgar Hoover Award for Distinguished Police Service and law enforcement’s Silver Star for Bravery.

In 2016, the Sheriff’s Association of Texas presented Spence with the Texas Peacemaker Award “established to honor a law enforcement professional that has exemplified over their lifetime of public service an extraordinary dedication to the public good and community which they have served and whose approach to law enforcement has been not only to maintain order but to bring justice.”

On New Year’s Eve, Spence cleaned out his desk in the office he called his second home until a bout with cancer placed him on leave in July 2019.

Two months later, Spence announced he wouldn’t seek re-election for a 10 th term in the office he won in 1985.

“Maybe the timing is right,” Spence, 72, said in his gruff Indiana drawl. “Maybe the sickness helped me make that decision. I finally came face-to-face with it — this is something I needed to come to terms with. It’s sad, in a way. That’s been most of my life — a public servant.”

For 35 years, the close ties the folksy, Indiana-born lawman forged with residents across the county helped make him Texas’ second-longest serving sheriff at the time he left office on New Year’s Day.

“I ’m thankful for the people in Willacy County who’ve been there all these years,” Spence said from his home on Ash Lane. “No matter who they were or what side of the community they’re from, you always take the time to talk with them. It means a lot. This was a 24-7 thing to me. That was part of the deal. People would see it and sense it.”

Spence loved that part of the job.

“I tell them at the department, ‘You take care of the people and people take care of you.’ That’s what they’ve always done. They’ve been very supportive. It was heart-warming. I didn’t want to let them down. For elected officials, you have to be that way and do it in a manner that people can see and understand. You’re a public servant — you’re not there to serve self. You’re there because they put you there. I was raised that way.”

This undated courtesy photo shows Willacy County Sheriff Larry Spence early in his career.

CATCHING THE BUG

Spence was born in Clinton, Indiana as the oldest of three children.

“I had good parents,” he said. “We were a close family. We learned to rely on each other.”

He was in fourth or fifth grade when he served as a patrol boy, helping children cross the street.

“I had one of the busiest intersections,” he said. “Sometimes police would stop and talk and sometimes the chief would stop. ‘Can you listen for my radio and listen if they call me.’ That helped pique my interest. I kind of got the bug — interested in the law enforcement field.”

While his younger brother went to work at the paint shop where his father worked for years, Spence followed “the bug” he caught in school.

“I always wanted to be in law enforcement,” he said.

After high school, a friend nudged him into taking a job with the FBI in Washington, D.C., where he worked for two years updating criminal files.

In 1966, Spence joined the Air Force, serving on its police force from California and Illinois to South Vietnam, where he helped secure his base during the Tet Offensive.

“The base came under attack a few times — mortar and rockets,” he said.

After his return home in 1968, he took a job as a patrolman in his hometown of Clinton, where 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 died 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 a guy driving a pickup truck and he slammed on his brakes and got out of the truck and walked toward the crowd of people. Then I saw a gun in his hand,” Spence recalled.

“One of the (strike) leaders was coming toward him and the farmer was walking toward him when I saw him raising the gun up like he was going to fire. That’s when I reached out and grabbed it and the hammer came down between my hand and forefinger. It stopped it from firing. Any number of people could have got hurt.”

For his action, the American Federation of Police presented him with the J. Edgar Hoover Award for Distinguished Police Service along with law enforcement’s Silver Star for Bravery.

This undated courtesy photo shows Willacy County Sheriff Larry Spence early in his career.

NEW SHERIFF IN TOWN

After he served as chief deputy under Sheriff Raul Arevalo, residents across the county talked Spence into running for office.

“They were business people, ranchers, everyday people,” he said.

On Jan. 1, 1985, Spence was 39 when he took the oath of office as sheriff of Willacy County.

“It’s been a long ride but it’s been a good ride,” he said.

After 35 years as the county’s top lawman, he’s become a legend.

Spence has served the community for decades.

For his work with organizations such as Texans’ War on Drugs, then-President Ronald Reagan invited him to the White House for the White House Conference for a Drug-Free America.

Through the years, three Texas governors have honored him with awards.

In town, Spence has served as chairman of Communities Against Substance Abuse, which he served for about 25 years.

On the state level, Spence has served as chaplain on the Sheriffs Association of Texas’ board of directors while he’s served as vice chairman of the Texas Border Sheriff’s Coalition. Spence has also served on the Southwestern Border Sheriffs Coalition’s board of directors.

ROAD TO RECOVERY

Now, Spence is recovering from his bout with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer found in its second stage in July 2019.

In October 2019, he completed chemotherapy before wrapping up radiation therapy in January 2020.

“They say it’s looking pretty good — it’s all been pretty positive,” he said. “It’s been a steady recovery and it’s looking better at every doctor’s visit.”

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 about 25 years ago.

“I’ve been blessed,” Spence said. “It makes you feel you made a difference in people’s lives. You try to make the world a better place and hopefully that’s what we’ve done. It was very humbling.”

“I’m thankful I got to follow my dreams and do the things I wanted to do. I thank all the people who shared the dream with me. I love them with all my heart.”

fdelvalle@valleystar.com