By: Kay Willingham Shiver
Heartfelt speeches, cheers, laughter, and applause marked an unforgettable downtown gathering celebrating Spann Cordle and his beloved service dog, the late Finn, on February 21.
Summerville Main Street hosted the event, unveiling an art installation by artist Billy Smith in front of the historic Montgomery Knitting Mill courtyard. Cordle, a nationally recognized disability spokesperson, said, “Every year I watch “It’s a Wonderful Life”. I never dreamed that my life and George Bailey’s would ever criss-cross. On Tuesday, February 21, I became the richest man in town!”
Beginning the festivities, Cordle and Smith attended a flag raising ceremony by VFW Post 6688 at the Summerville Depot. Ron Stephens and Sam Hudsputh conducted the event. County officials changed the Tooga Theatre Marquee to honor Cordle as a social advocate for disability awareness. In days prior to the celebration, Cordle was interviewed by WXIA TV Atlanta 11Alive’s Kaitlyn Ross.
Speakers included Summerville Mayor Harry Harvey, Mainstreet Director Susan Locklear, retired educator John Turner, artist Billy Smith, and Spann Cordle. Many local dignitaries, current and former county and city officials were among approximately 100 spectators who surrounded the scene, which was beautifully arranged and decorated by Locklear.
“This gathering is to celebrate Span and all that he has done with his service dog Finn,” said Summerville Mayor Harry Harvey in his opening statements. “Spann and Finn were the first associate and service dog team in Walmart history and they paved the way for many others to be hired. Spann is a representative of our community but also a state and national spokesperson for disability awareness. “Spann is certainly an inspiration to each and every one of us,” he said.
“Spann, you are loved by many,” Susan Locklear added. “This is a day to honor Spann Cordle and his late service dog, Finn. He has been such an advocate and inspiration in our community for so many years.”
A mob scene of love and respect
Upon his arrival at the event, Cordle was met with an overwhelming expression of friendship as dozens of attendees hugged him, shook his hand, and took pictures. “As I approached the large crowd, it was a feeling of total comfort and overwhelming joy,” Cordle said. “Everyone was there not out of ‘have to’, but out of ‘want to.’ People who were there wanted to show not only their love, but also appreciation, and in so doing it became a mob scene of love and respect”
Cordle’s wit was a highlight, bringing cheers when he related, “As Mayor Harvey said, Finn and I were the first associate service dog team in Walmart History. Now if you go on Walmart.com, you can see that there are hundreds of service dog teams worldwide. I feel like I’m a little bit a part of that and I’m flattered and humbled by that. But one thing I’ve got to say: Out of 3.1 million associates worldwide at Walmart, Finn and I are the only ones being put on a Coke Bottle today!”
Cordle spoke of his gratitude for the planning and effort of the city and its volunteers in creating the event. He thanked Billy Smith for designing and painting an original art installation for the community. ”I want to thank everybody for coming," Cordle said. “I wasn’t expecting this turnout at all. There are people here from everywhere and I appreciate it. Thank you”
Speeches From a Memorable Day on Summerville’s Mainstreet
Retired educator John Turner, director of the World Friendship Project, said that he was “honored and privileged” to recognize two of his outstanding former students, Cordle and Smith. “I started teaching back in 1974. Mr. Ellis, who was my mentor, said. “You aren’t going to get a whole lot of money teaching, but there are those moments that are going to come along that you will experience that will give you a whole lot of reward in your life.’ This is one of those moments. I get to go across the sea of time and see Spann, one of my first students from the 1970’s and then Billy, who was in the 90’s — both great students whom I loved dearly and I still do. This is a very special moment for me and I know it is for all of you all. I am so proud of Spann. He is a dear person and we all know that.”
Turner also expressed appreciation for the work of Summerville Main Street to enhance the downtown streetscape. “I think it is a wonderful thing we have going in Summerville and a lot of the credit goes to Mayor Harvey and Susan Locklear,” he said. “Every time I walk by, I see something new. Thank you Summerville for being such a great little community. We are upwardly moving. It takes a community coming together to make things like this happen.”
The veteran teacher next turned his attention to Billy Smith, calling him to the podium. “Billy is one of my prize students. He was dedicated, interested in art, and he had talent. He continued with it, he stayed focused on it, and he has blossomed into a fine artist. The colors just leap out at you. There is something going on there. I can’t be more proud of him. From the bottom of my heart, you are a fine person and have always been a kind-hearted person.”
Billy Smith took the podium to unveil his work of art but used humor to deflect the attention away from himself, keeping the spotlight on honoring Cordle. “Of all people who have been up here today, I’m the least James Earl Jones-speaking one of the bunch, " he said. “I thank all of you for choosing me to paint this.” During the unveiling, Smith watched his painting subject’s reaction and was visibly moved by Cordle’s elation and the cheers and applause from the crowd.
Smith’s Art at the Center of it All
It is said that good art inspires others to form their own ideas, and there are many opportunities to interpret the Coke Bottle Art that Billy Smith created to honor Cordle. Smith painted details symbolizing Cordle’s career and life events, including the yellow Walmart Spark symbol and the bottle’s blue background color. The bottle features a realistic portrait of Spann and Finn, plus more impressionistic paintings depicting their special partnership in work and the activities of daily living.
As a highly trained service dog, Finn’s driving mission and enjoyment in life came from helping Spann and being a much-needed part of his day. Smith interpreted this relationship within two sections of the bottle, one depicting Finn waiting beside Spann in his wheelchair, and another, a fantasy panel showing Cordle and Finn running and playing together in freedom from earthly encumbrances. This painting could be seen as symbolic of their working relationship where each added to the other’s life. Some see it as a Heavenly future reunion. Red silhouettes of Finn are inscribed with messages expressing the service dog’s devotion to Cordle: “ It will be a long journey. I will walk with you.” A red heart is inscribed, “There is ability to disability.”
A dedication plaque was added to read, “In Honor of Spann Cordle and his late, Beloved Service Dog, Finn. “Bringing Honor and Awareness to those with disabilities in our community.” Artist: Billy Smith 2023.