Al Spika grew up in a blacksmith shop, where raw metal was hammered into tools, utensils, agricultural implements and other practical items. During the war years, the steel used to manufacture spare parts for farm equipment was instead directed to the war effort.By necessity, Al became adept at straightening, reinforcing and repairing old parts to keep combines running.
Although he employs power tools rather than a welding torch, and works in wood rather than metal, he hasn't lost his resourcefulness. He's the kind of guy who's always looking for a better way to do something, or to fix a problem with whatever he's got on hand.
At work, he was known as MacGyver, after the TV hero who every week came up with a simple invention to save the day.
As a soil conservationist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service, he devised a simple solution to correct the pressure differential on pipelines carrying irrigation water. The system was first employed in the Williams orchard near Cedaredge, but soon was copied by neighboring orchardists. Now you can find a plastic version at irrigation supply companies.
A veteran of the U.S. Air Force, Al worked for NCRS (originally known as the Soil Conservation Service) for 36 years. He was raised in Montana and attended college in Bozeman. After he did his stint during the Korean War, he returned to Montana to teach vocational agriculture. He held that position for just one year before joining the SCS. During his career he and his wife Alice lived in Circle, Glendive, Miles City and Stanford, Mont., then in Las Vegas and Tonopah, Nev. In 1975, they moved to Delta where they raised their five children, Penny, Sandi, Darci, Pam and Trevor. They have nine grandkids.
After retiring from the NRCS in 1991, Al took a couple weeks of vacation, then began working at the First Baptist Church as a custodian. Pastor James Conley describes Al as "one of the kindest, most intelligent, hard working individuals that I know."
Conley continued, "He is a proud, unassuming man who makes the world a better place. When asked about his faith journey, Al will reply that he is a Lutheran. Though, I believe that he loves the Baptists since he has sure put up with us for a long time."
At the church, Al has done everything from designing video cabinets and building a nativity stage, to reengineering tree stands and pulpits. He mows the lawn, takes out the trash, and gets the sprinkler system running in the spring. He even built a train from an old lawn mower that has been in parades and carried children on rides in carnivals and at church picnics.
The church pavilion is filled with 34 picnic tables built by Al, who used the two-piece tables at Cleland Park as a model. Typically, he improved on the design so when separated, each half of the table will stand up independently.
Al is the type of guy who always has a project or two in the works. At home, he's repairing a neighbor's lawnmower between his wood projects. In just 15 minutes, he can produce an oven rack push-pull stick from a discarded pallet. He turns out candlestick holders pretty quickly too, but needs several days to produce wooden boxes with snug-fitting lids. He's made several heart-shaped boxes from tongue-and-groove pieces of cedar closet lining.
Each box of cedar contains about 15 square feet of wood. Al sorts through the contents of the box carefully, looking for two matching pieces to make the lid. Once he's got the lid and the base cut out, he begins carefully sanding, fitting and gluing the narrow pieces around the heart-shaped base. It clearly takes a patient man to position each piece of 1/2" to 5/8"-wide cedar. A polyurethane finish protects the exterior of the box; the interior is lined with padded satin fabric.
About four years ago, Al got started on walking sticks. A long piece of curly willow was his inspiration. Since then he's made walking sticks from a variety of woods, each with a distinctive or unique shape to lend to the walking stick. The walking sticks and the oven rack push-pulls are available at Delta Hardware, but Al admits he gives away a lot more than he sells.
The folding candlestick holder pictured below was inspired by an art project at the Delta Academy for Applied Learning, which his grandkids attended. Using an idea from a book, he helped the kids build a smaller version of the candlestick holder. When he got home, he adapted the design so the candleholder would hold 10- and 12-inch tapers. A dowel is the pivot around which the "legs" of the candleholder - which are cut from one piece of wood - revolve.
No scrap of wood is wasted. From an interesting piece of firewood, he crafted a pair of bookends. Contrasting pieces of wood make an interesting trivet. Al used the same concept to make insets for the hardwood floor in Darci and Matt Hellman's newly remodeled home. The diamond shaped inserts add distinction to the entry hall.
"I grew up thinking Dad could do anything," Darci said. "I assumed all men could fix a toilet or build furniture for their children."
When Darci's son Dylan was in the second grade, he and Grandpa made a wooden plane from a cedar fence post. Since then, Dylan has been the architect of several large-scale projects, from the arch at Panther Stadium to a trailer which won grand champion ag mechanics and a best workmanship award at the Colorado State Fair. Al has clearly passed on his resourcefulness, although he says Dylan has the problem-solving abilities of an engineer that he's never possessed.
There's no shortage of talent in the Spika family. Daughter Sandi has designed fabulous dresses for many country western stars. Reba McEntire, Taylor Swift, and Trisha Yearwood have worn Sandi's dresses on the "red carpet" and on stage. When it comes to stringing beads on the beautiful dresses, Sandi calls her mom Alice to help. An amazing seamstress, Alice has made many quilts for family and friends, as well as quilts for her church to send to the needy. Al has gotten into the act, coming up with more efficient methods of adding fringe and beads to the dresses.
As his 80th birthday approaches, Al is getting ready to retire again, this time from First Baptist Church. On Sunday, March 8, Al's ministry will be recognized during the morning worship service. The night before - Saturday, March 7 - his family is hosting an open house in celebration of Al's 80th birthday. Friends and family members are invited to stop First Baptist Church of Delta, 1250 Pioneer Road, between 5 and 8 p.m. Saturday.
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"Al has been a wonderful man to work with and to observe through the years," Pastor Conley said. "The church family at First Baptist has been forever changed by his servant's heart and persevering attitude."