DECATUR — It’s hard to know what concerns Ron Rector more. Is it the difficulty of saying goodbye to a Decatur that has been his home for much of 25 years? Or the uncertainty of packing up his life — including his advancing multiple sclerosis — and toting it all to Texas?
Either way, it’s a bittersweet time for Ron and his wife, Mary Ann, as they bid farewell to Central Illinois. During a quarter century in which Ron was a sports anchor at WAND-TV, worked in television and radio for other area stations, and seems to have found his calling in the ministry, Decatur has made these natives of Tennessee (Ron) and Arkansas (Mary Ann) feel like they belong here. But early in October, they will head to Pflugerville, Texas, outside of Austin, a move that will put them in the same state with their three children, hopefully anchoring them for what Ron bravely accepts as a challenging future.
Diagnosed in 2009 with primary progressive multiple sclerosis, Rector has gradually been losing the use of his legs, exactly as doctors predicted he would. But it’s his smiling face and his refusal to adopt a “why me?” attitude that has made him an inspiration to friends and those he has ministered, lately thanks to a position provided to him by Grace United Methodist Church.
“I’ve had people come up to me and say, ‘You inspire me,’” Rector said. “I just try to be as upbeat as I can. I’m lucky because I’ve had a chance to minister to others with different afflictions and some have told me, ‘Ron, at least you must know what I’m up against.’”
That brings comfort to Rector, and it’s even an inspiration to other pastors who have known him before and after his diagnosis.
“He has always been upbeat and never discouraged,” said Pat Pajak, former senior pastor at Tabernacle Baptist Church who now serves as the associate executive director of the Illinois Baptist State Association. “He just keeps on keeping on. He has stopped by the house a few times when he was discouraged and said, ‘I need a little help.’ I’ve just told him, ‘Don’t give up. God is not done with you yet.’”
Surely there are days when Rector must feel like throwing his hands up in surrender.
He moves mostly with the aid of a walker nowadays, although a wheelchair is sometimes a more practical option.
“I generally feel good,” he said in describing his condition. “No pain. I just move like a rusty gate. I use the walker much of the time and the wheelchair in crowds or when we’re going longer distances. Or on bad days.
“I know I will be more wheelchair-bound in the future.”
That’s where the move to Texas makes sense to this couple who met through their television jobs in Fort Smith, Ark.
Rector’s father, Jim, is an 80-year-old leukemia survivor. Jim lived in Decatur and when Ron Rector had a chance to anchor the sports desk at WAND in 1989, that brought him and Mary Ann to Central Illinois.
Rextor’s memories in sports are many and they are recalled with crystal clarity. He can tell you about favorite high school athletes, relationships with college coaches and how while covering the Illini football team at the Hall of Fame Bowl in Florida when he nearly choked to death on a piece of hamburger.
“I started turning blue,” he said. “An Illini player jumped up and performed the Heimlich maneuver on me. Might have saved my life.”
Even now, Rector keeps a hand in sports. He is doing radio play-by-play for high school football games broadcast on WXFM in Mount Zion. That might seem a modest hobby unless you happen to arrive at the stadium early enough to watch Ron drag himself and his failing legs step by step up the bleachers, clinging to the handrail, pulling himself up to the elevated press box.
His last game will be at Mount Zion High School on Friday, Oct. 4.
Although always a man of faith, it wasn’t until encouragement from minister friends like Pajak and Wayne Kent of Decatur’s First Christian Church made him give the ministry an honest try.
Framed on his wall is a note Pajak passed to Rector in May of 1998, hand-scribbled on a prayer program..
“God is calling you,” Pajak wrote. “Answer Him. Don’t miss it, brother.”
Kent offered a similar nudge, suggesting that he enroll in seminary classes at Lincoln Christian. “So off he went and the next thing he’s doing ministry full-time,” Kent said. “He was in mid-life, and that’s a big gam-ble when you think about it.”
Kent stays in close touch with Rector and he sees a man who is secure enough in his faith not to question why God has handed him this challenge.
“I think Ron is settled with it,” Kent observed. “And there are very few people who can get there, at that age, with that disease.
“He has his life in perspective and I can tell you Texas’ gain is Decatur’s loss when it comes to ministry in our city.”
Ron and Mary Ann Rector hope to settle into their new Texas home and get a van with a mechanical lift. They’ll be grateful to be closer to 26-year-old son Scott and his wife, Jennifer, and six-year-old granddaughter Kaylee. They are moving from Winston-Salem, N.C., to Austin in late October.
They’ll be just miles away from 23-year-old son Jonathan and his wife, Shanna, who live in Austin. And they’ll be closer to daughter Sarah, 21, who is a senior at Baylor University in Waco.
Mary Ann Rector said the children are aware of their father’s worsening condition, although she has purposely not heaped the details on them.
“I’ve been careful about not burdening the kids,” she said. “There are just starting to get going with their own lives. But it will be good to be near them.”
Ron Rector approaches the uncertain future with his faith securely in hand.
“I’m confident this new chapter will be a good one,” he said. “I don’t know what’s coming and I kind of like that.”
Rather than dwell on the future, he instead leans on the bible.
“The Bible says today has enough worries of its own,” he says with a soft smile. But he is human and curious and although he maintains a sunny outlook, he knows he faces a formidable opponent.
“I have to come to terms with the reality of it and at the same time balance my dogged determination,” he said. “But as things go on, sure, I wonder in a couple of years what it will be like.”
Kent marvels at Rector’s fortitude.
“There is something very potent about watching someone struggle to get to the pulpit and then say, ‘Let me tell you about how we live together.’
“It’s a powerful message.”