The Way We Were: Clayton M. Spradley

The Way We Were: Clayton M. Spradley
Air Force Two, circa 1980

A man with Riverside roots. A former football star. A retired veteran with officer’s rank. Over four decades in various areas of law enforcement. A published author. An 82-year-old mind that remembers the exact addresses of places he’s lived, which he admits “is amazing!” This is Clayton M. Spradley of Orange Park.

Spradley was born at home in Lake City, Florida on October 10, 1939 and moved to Jacksonville as the youngest of three when he was a year old. His parents, Roy and Ethel, settled the family in Riverside on a dirt road at 612 Florence Street, a corner house with a bathroom on an outside porch and running water, but only cold. It was the early 40s, and they had an ice box in the kitchen. Twice weekly, the iceman would come on his buggy, pulled by Dixie the mule, to make a delivery. An indoor skating rink was built across the street where Spradley began working at 8 years old. His dad had been a prison guard and then worked in the dairy industry while attending night classes to learn welding as WWII raged on.

The Spradleys, 613 Florence Street, circa 1942, Roy, Ethel, Ivonne, Hathaway, and Clayton
The Spradleys, 613 Florence Street, circa 1942, Roy, Ethel, Ivonne, Hathaway, and Clayton

Spradley attended Central Riverside Elementary School through most of the third grade. In 1949, his parents bought a home, one with hot running water, at 3107 Lowell Avenue in the Woodstock Park area; so, Spradley transferred to Annie R. Morgan Elementary School where he repeated the third grade due to what he suspects was likely undiagnosed dyslexia. There, he met one of several crushes, a chubby girl named Helen. At 11, he landed a job as a carryout boy at Jax Meat Market, a grocery store three miles from home.

Spradley remained at Morgan through sixth grade before moving up to John Gorrie Junior High for the next three years. During that time, a fourth child was born to the family when Spradley had just turned 14. No longer the baby of the family, Spradley was a hard worker and an avid sportsman. “I played everything at Gorrie,” he said.

Back then, Lackawanna Park with its swimming pool was the gathering spot for kids from the Riverside area and the developing Paxon area. “That was the meeting place,” Spradley said.

There was also Green Street Park off King Street, which was commonly known as The Cow Pasture. “Every kid who ever grew up in that part of Riverside at that time went over there and played,” Spradley said, referring to the wide range of unorganized sporting activities that went on. Later, Woodstock Park became the place for organized ball teams for youth. That’s also the place where Spradley boxed for the first time; Wally Tanner beat him.

Clayton Spradley, Eagle Scout
Clayton Spradley, Eagle Scout

Spradley completed 10th through 12th grades at Paxon High, a new school at that time. He was a member of Paxon’s second graduating class and dubbed Star Graduate. While in high school, Spradley achieved Eagle Scout rank, having been a scout since junior high. “I’m very proud of that,” he said, and commented on what an accomplishment that was for a boy from “a tough neighborhood.” His troop 122 was sponsored by the Mormon Church located on the corner of Park and Copeland Streets in Riverside.

Clayton Spradley, low hurdles, Paxon High, circa 1957
Clayton Spradley, low hurdles, Paxon High, circa 1957

When he wasn’t playing sports, Spradley was at Jacksonville Beach meeting girls. Other times, he was with Vernon Peterson, whose neighbor allowed him to drive a converted old, door-less car with a flatbed built onto the back of it with no tag. “We ran everywhere in that piece of junk truck,” Spradley said. Leighton Boyette was usually with them, driving all around the west side of Jacksonville. Mrs. Boyette and Spradley’s mom worked together at Armour and Company, a meat packaging business.

“I was a decent athlete,” Spradley also said. He was Paxon’s football captain. The coach was John Axton, whose wife, Mae, was like a second mom to Spradley and who was co-writer of “Heartbreak Hotel” made famous by Elvis Presley. One of the Axtons two sons, Hoyt, was known for having written “Joy to the World” made famous by the band Three Dog Night. Spradley still keeps in touch with football players from the rival teams of Landon, DuPont, Jackson, and Lee. In fact, most of Lee’s players were Spradley’s former classmates from Gorrie, including Carl Cochran and Dalton Bray. Monty Crook was Lee’s captain, and he went on to coach professional teams as a career. To this day, a group of a dozen or so of the guys now in their 80s from Jacksonville’s school classrooms and football fields meet for breakfast every Thursday morning.

Carl Cochran #83 Lee, Clayton Spradley #20 Paxon, and Richard Scully #84 Landon
Carl Cochran #83 Lee, Clayton Spradley #20 Paxon, and Richard Scully #84 Landon

Spradley was one of five Paxon graduates in his class who had earned a full football scholarship to Florida State University (FSU). There, he pursued a degree in criminology while on and off the field due to various injuries. While in college, he married and started a family. Before graduating, he had left for a time to enter the United States Coast Guard Reserve. He did six months of active duty and would remain in the Reserve for 30 years before retiring as Lieutenant Commander. Upon graduation from FSU, Spradley landed a spot as a classification officer by the Florida Department of Corrections.

In 1962, Spradley was employed with the Special Office of Naval Intelligence, currently known as Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS). The nature of Spradley’s work and the missions to which he had been assigned required him to move throughout and beyond Florida over the years, with a couple of stints at NAS Jax before and after serving in Vietnam from 1970-71. By this time, Spradley had four children who were living with his wife in Orange Park, even while he was stationed in Virginia when he returned to the States.

Not only did Spradley own a home in Orange Park but also co-owned Triple C Western Wear on Highway 17 in Orange Park, a business he had gotten into when one of his daughters decided that she liked horses. His partner was Dr. Tim Carter, OD, a respected Jacksonville optometrist who recently passed away.

Spradley’s career highlights comprise a lengthy list. To name a couple, he spent two decades as a Special Agent with the United States Secret Service. He protected five different presidents: Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, and G.H.W. Bush. Upon his retirement from the Secret Service, Spradley was employed by the governor of South Carolina to oversee and coordinate the FEMA efforts that followed Hurricane Hugo.

“I’ve been very fortunate and very blessed. At 82 years old, I’ve done an awful lot, gone to a lot of places, and had a lot of good things happen,” Spradley said. He admits that he’s experienced tragedy, too, that he’s learned to deal with. In 2005, his first-born son died in a car accident at age 43. Spradley cared for his son’s children for a time afterwards.

Diane and Clayton Spradley with Renegade and Bella
Diane and Clayton Spradley with Renegade and Bella

It was in South Carolina that Spradley met his present wife of 38 years, Diane. They reside in Orange Park with two canine fur babies. From his four children, Spradley has 10 grandchildren and three greats. For them, he self-published an autobiography in 2012 entitled Exploits of a Federal Agent: My Story – My Life – My Way. It’s available on Amazon.

By Mary Wanser
Resident Community News

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