By Matt Burks
Albert Theodore Speed Enters the World
It was 2 p.m., Nov. 9, 1988. That was the day, the time, that Gary Speed, an up and coming Arkansas lawyer was preparing to see his own flesh and blood be born at Baptist Medical Center. Gary Speed is still an attorney today, but when you talk to him about his son Albert, you walk away with the impression that he would trade it all in just to spend more time with his baby boy.
“Everyone has dreams about what they want to do with their children and I was no different in those regards,” Gary Speed said.
He laughs about how sometime after 2 p.m. on Nov. 9, 1988, his then wife Julie who was not completely through all the dilation stages, was told by a nurse to walk into the bathroom to help speed up the process of child birth. He jokes about how his wife nearly had their child in the bathroom because suddenly little Albert was kicking to get out into the world.
Gary Speed remembers it well, it was 2:52 p.m. when he looked deep into the blue eyes of Albert for the first time. Holding his blonde hair, eight pound-two ounce, 21 and one-fourth inch son in his arms, Gary Speed was ready to protect Albert from the cold parts of the world.
“Albert was just an exceptional kid,” he said. “Any parent would feel so blessed to have him. He was happy, cute, fun loving. He loved to laugh and tell jokes. He had an incredible sense of humor and he was always a hoot, a funny kid who was always cracking jokes.”
Albert and the Teenage Years
By the time Albert Speed was 15 years old he was heavily involved in scouting, both the cub and boy scouts. His father was always there, whether as a den leader, scout master, or just being a parent.
“Together we did just about everything you can imagine in scouting,” Gary Speed said. “He loved to rock climb, white water rafting, kayaking, he loved to go caving, sailing — we did all those things together. He made it to the rank of life scout. But I never pushed him to become an Eagle Scout (the highest rank in the Boy Scouts of America).”
Despite not pushing his son, Gary Speed said Albert had great ambitions in scouting. Gary and Albert Speed didn’t just partake in the local scout meetings, the two spent several vacations together at the Philmont Scout Ranch in Cimarron, New Mexico. They hiked 80 miles through the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, which is part of the Rocky Mountains of northern New Mexico, to reach the peak of the mountain top.
On Gary Speed’s office desk sets a reminder of that time. He proudly displays a picture of Albert standing on a cliff, walking stick in hand reaching towards the sky with a sense of wonderment and happiness stuck on his face. Gary Speed said his son was “long and lean” reaching the height of six-foot, four-inches. Even with the serene mountains and clouds in the great distance showing signs of a storm rolling in behind Albert in the picture, the focus remains on a happy teen.
Gary Speed stares at his son wearing hiking boots, khaki shorts, black short sleeve shirt, raincoat tied around his waist and a white shell necklace. He didn’t know at the time the significance that snapshot of time would effect his life.
“After that last trip to Philmont, at the age of 14, Albert dreamed of being a ranger there and he had plans,” Gary Speed said. “His maturity amazed me.”
Even at Central High School in Little Rock, Gary Speed said his son was accomplishing great things. He said his son had a “beautiful, gorgeous” girlfriend, a lot of friends, and was making good grades.
“(Albert) was very popular and he had the second highest PSAT scores in his class,” Gary Speed said. “He was being looked at for a National Merit finalist. But like a lot of kids his age, Albert really went through adolescent change. He started wanting to do more things on his own.”
At the age of 16, Gary Speed believed his son began experimenting with drugs and that thought proved to be true when he found a some marijuana in Albert’s vehicle.
“But I suspected (Albert) was on other things too because of major personality changes,” he said. “On the night I found the marijuana in his car, I removed it, dispose of it and told his mother about it. Then she told him.”
He added, “When (Albert) found out, he became angry and aggressive. His personality changed.”
Gary Speed said his son use to be known to “challenge you intellectually” but never in an aggressive, physical manner. In a flash, Albert’s caring father said everything changed. The two fought that night and Gary said his normally happy, laughing, jokester son became very physically angry.
“I left at 2 a.m. and walked around Walmart to let (Albert) cool off,” Gary Speed recalls. “When I got back home, I found that he took a 30 pound dumbbell and used it to destroy a safe, and It scared the heck out of me. I realized at that point that I needed help from other adults, because I no longer had influence over my own son.”
A Father Attempts to Help His Distraught Son
Gary Speed said he spoke to the Central High School principal who recommended putting Albert in a drug treatment facility. Albert and his mother, where Albert lived, however, disagreed.
“After that 2 a.m. episode, (Albert) never returned to my house,” Gary Speed said while hiding pain behind his eyes. “He sent me an email and said he would end visitations because he couldn’t live up to my expectations.”
He added, “I never preached to him about drug abuse, but after years of being a scout, he knew where I stood. I also found out that his beautiful girlfriend had broke with (Albert) at least three times because of his drug use. That told me that (Albert) was really addicted. He chose drugs over her.
And also over the previously strong, close relationship with his father.
Fifteen months later, despite attempts to reach his son and convince him he needed to find away to get off drugs, Albert invited a few seniors into his mother’s home. The seniors had their last day of school, but every other student including Albert in his junior year, was to return the next day.
Gary Speed said when Albert’s mother kicked out his friends so that her son could get sleep for school the next day, Albert became angry. Albert grabbed a few things and headed to a friends home to crash for the night.
“(Albert) called his girlfriend, probably around 2 a.m., and said he wasn’t doing well,” Gary Speed said.
The next afternoon — May 26, 2006 — Albert’s friend threw a pillow at him. Albert did not respond. Gary Speed said he learned that after trying to wake Albert, the friend put Albert in the car to rush him to a hospital only to realize that Albert had died.
“It is amazing, but five years later and that day is still fresh in my mind,” Gary Speed said. “The image that comes to my mind, I want to take a rewind button and wish it never happened.”
The autopsy report said Albert Theodore Speed, a young tall seventeen year old boy with a passion for scouting and joking with family and friends, had alcohol and marijuana in his system; but according to the state medical examiner, Albert died from the combination of prescription drugs — methadone and xanax — that was also in his blood stream. The same drugs that routinely show up in Saline Courier articles, whether in a police beat or another tragic loss of a young person. Albert Speed had a lot of potential in life his father said, but “he gave up on his dreams” for a masked life of temporary pleasure in the form of pill.
Life After Loss and Finding Meaning In Tragedy
Gary Speed looks again at the picture of his son reaching towards the clouds and this Courier reporter hears the voice of Stevie Nicks singing “I’m not a child anymore. I’m tall enough to reach for the stars. I’m old enough to love you from afar” on the Fleetwood Mac song Beautiful Child. Two fathers in an empty room, both missing their children, but sadly only one can return to see laughing smiles and warm hugs.
Gary Speed acknowledges that he would do anything to hold his son once more, but now he pushes on in life to help others. He searched and found meaning to commemorate his son’s life, and death.
“In grieving for a child, you want to find meaning and purpose in the death,” Gary Speed said. “To me it has been speaking to other youth about the dangers of prescription drug abuse.”
He shows facts and figures about prescription drug abuse among the youth right here in Arkansas. Gary Speed quickly prints off copies of fliers for Operation Medicine Cabinet III and a spreadsheet breaking down each prescription medication that caused a death since 2002 in Arkansas. He also prints off information written by the state Drug Director Fran Flener and countless other articles from local, state, and national experts about the dangers of prescription drug abuse.
But Gary Speed is also grounded enough to spread his message not through those facts and figures that ultimately may or may not get heard by readers, but through the emotional story of his son. The story of his son and the bond that was broken by experimentation with pills is strong enough to send a message, to change the thoughts of others.
Gary Speed said that two weeks after the loss of his son, he was scheduled to take another 80 mile trek at Philmont.
“At first I thought ‘I can’t go,’ but his mother insisted about (Albert) being cremated, then it donned on me,” he said. “I needed to go to Philmont.”
With a group of new young teenagers — aspiring Boy Scouts, and an urn of Albert’s ashes, Gary Speed hiked the 80 miles to the top of the mountain again where his son once reached for stars. He stood in that same spot his son did just two years prior that now graces Gary Speed’s office in a photo frame.
“We had 18 youth and six adults there and we had a memorial service for Albert,” Gary Speed said. “I told the kids about how Albert stood on top of this mountain and wanted to come back a ranger. But just like everyone, he made bad choices and he took a path of prescription drugs and died. (Albert) gave up his dreams.”
He added, “I encouraged them to not give up on their dreams, and to not be afraid to turn around if they get on the wrong path.”
Today, Gary Speed still practices law and is a prominent figure in the Stephen’s Building on Center Street in downtown Little Rock. From 1984 to 1996, he was a senior member of Rose Law Firm in Little Rock and today he practices law at Speed Law Firm.
Career wise, Gary Speed has made a lot of accomplishments. He said he also hopes to accomplish a lot of great things in life by reaching adults and children about the dangers of abusing prescription drugs, or other type of drugs, can present. It can change a life full of promise to a dark path of deception and even death, he said.
It is why Gary Speed is a proponent of helping events like OMC. Anything he can do to help others from going through the tragedies he met in life, he will do.
Gary Speed, with the help of Carolyn Long and Lance Herring with Jones Television in Springdale, Arkansas have produced a video that is available on www.youtube.com called “We Have A Problem Arkansas!” He encourages everyone to stop on the website and spend 13 minutes viewing the griping documentary.
There are also 2,500 copies made of the video that Gary Speed hopes to pass out at various OMC locations. He said there is still an urgent need to get his message out, including that recently another young man in his Boy Scout Troop 30 in Little Rock lost his life to a prescription drug and heroin overdose.
In response, the other boys in the troop plan to knock on literally thousands of homes in the Heights area of Little Rock and hand out the “We Have A Problem in Arkansas” video.
“We are working to try and educate the kids,” Gary Speed said. “Two deaths in the same (Boy Scout) troop is really devastating. You know, the Central High School principal told me five years ago that the drug problem in schools is not with the poor kids, it is the upper middle class and higher. These aren’t unintelligent kids abusing prescription drugs, they are very smart kids doing this. My son even tutored Calculus.”
He added, “Saline County is very fortunate to have the leadership of Chief Lane and the Saline Courier promoting Operation Medicine Cabinet. I hope we can replicate the success they’ve had with the program in the past in other areas of the state. Benton is really leading the way; and my personal goal is to beat Chief Lane and have Pulaski County get more prescription medicines dropped off than he does there.”