Special Olympic athletes mourn the loss of a friend

Mike Rhoden is pictured front row right in this photo taken at the Special Olympics bowling tournament in 2019.

OKEECHOBEE — Okeechobee Special Olympic athletes lost one of their own last week, and his loss will be felt for a long time. Mike Rhoden was born and raised in Okeechobee, and one of the things everyone who met him agrees on is that he always had a smile on his face and made you feel like you were important to him, like he cared that you were there. “He loved everybody he met, and he loved the Lord,” said his sister Mary Jane Schoonmaker. “He never met a stranger.”

Mike Rhoden never met a stranger.

His aunt Wanda Spradlin said Mike’s parents had lost two children at birth, and when Mike came along, everyone was so excited. They did not realize there was anything wrong until he was about 4-months-old. They realized he was not able to hold his head up like he should have been able to by that age. “He was the prettiest little fellow. I don’t know who loved him the most,” she said.

They began taking him to doctors to find out what was wrong and he was diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy. Dr. Francis, who was a naprapath here in Okeechobee, used to walk to their house and do therapy on Mike. “She worked and worked and worked with Mike. She loved him dearly,” said Spradlin. They also took him to see a chiropractor in Bartow a couple times a week. They did not have good transportation, and it was very difficult to get him there. When he was close to a year old, he spent about 9 months at the Harry-Anna Crippled Children’s Home in Umatilla, where they were told he would get the help he needed. “Every time we left after visiting him, he would cry, and we would cry all the way home on the bus,” said his aunt. His mother missed him so much though that his father finally told her to go get their boy and bring him home, and she went straight back and got him.
They decided to move to Vero Beach so he could get therapy, and later, they moved to Palm Beach, where he was able to go to school a little bit. When the Sunshine School was opened in Okeechobee in the early ’60s, they moved back to Okeechobee and he has been here ever since.

This phot of Mike Rhoden and his father was taken at the first Special Olympics bowling tournament held in Okeechobee in 1977.

“Mike’s life has been surrounded by friends, and church was Mike’s thing,” said Spradlin. He was a member at the Church of God of Okeechobee.
When he was young, he was able to walk a little bit, but as he got older, the weakness and wobbliness progressed down his legs. “I cannot tell you how many times he fell and busted his lip or the back of his head open,” she said. “It was heartbreaking to see it, but he would not let it get the best of him. He would get up and go again.” When he was about 30, he had to have surgery on his hip, and the fusion put a stop to his walking.

Mike never complained, according to both his sister and his aunt. If he had to have something for pain, he always apologized for asking. He was the most thankful person either of them ever met, as well. “Any time he was given something, he was so grateful,” said his aunt.

His aunt told a favorite story of a time Mike came to visit her. One of Spradlin’s sons was joking around about his wife and old girlfriends he had over the years. He told Mike they were all trouble. Mike said, “I don’t have that problem.” His caregiver Deloris spoke up and reminded him that she couldn’t even get to him at church for all the ladies swarming around him all wanting a hug. Mike threw up his hands and said, “What can I say?”
Mike’s sister told a story about his hip surgery. He was in a cast and couldn’t bend to sit in the car. They had no idea how they would get him home from the hospital. Lavon Bass told them not to worry about it, he would get Mike and bring him home. “He brought him home in his funeral car,” she laughed. “It worked. He brought him right to the door.”

Mike was a member of the Social Butterfly group, and he met with them several times a week for activities such as bingo, bowling or a movie. Some of the members have been Mike’s friends since they were young children going to the Sunshine School together.

In the late 70’s Mike became a Special Olympic athlete. He loved bowling but participated in other activities as well. He enjoyed being a part of the Special Stars competitions, with his friend Bernard Marker. He was very excited when Special Olympics began again in Okeechobee after about a 30-year break, and found he still enjoyed bowling just as much as he did when he was young.

His sister asked him recently, “Mike, ain’t you tired?” She said he was almost 70 years old, but he just said, “Nope.” He didn’t want to stay home. If his friends were doing something, he wanted to be there too.
A few days before he passed away, his sister asked him, “Mike, if you were well, if you didn’t have any handicap, what would you have done?” Mike replied, “I would have worked on the turnpike on the road.” His sister was surprised and happy to hear this. She said, “Mike was always Mama’s boy, because of his disabilities, but if things had been different, he would have turned out to be like Daddy.” Most of their family is in law enforcement, but their father worked on the roads, she explained. “He would have been happy to know Mike wanted to be like him.”

Although they miss him terribly, both his aunt and his sister believe Mike is in Heaven now and this gives them peace.

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