He thought he was getting a wife.
In a “miraculous” turn of events, he’s ended up getting “a hero,” as well.
Jack Sperry reconnected with Alexandra “Alex” Heeter-Frazier a little over five years ago through Facebook.
Both had gone to Centerville High School – Jack graduating a year before her in 1981 – and both now were divorced and co-raising two daughters with their former spouses.
“We didn’t run in the same circles in high school, but we knew each other,” Alex said. “He was a football player and I was on the drill team.”
After high school and a degree at Miami University, she got a job in Seattle and eventually ended up in Fredrick, Md. where her then-husband worked for the Department of Energy. Her daughter Hannah is now a sophomore at James Madison University and daughter Grace is a junior in high school.
After a stellar football career with the Elks, Jack got a marketing degree at Ohio State, worked for 18 years at Bank One in Dayton, moved briefly to another job and in 2008 bought the iconic Hamburger Wagon in Miamisburg.
And along with his friend and fellow downtown businessman, Ron Holp of Ron’s Pizza, Jack helped launch the Rock ‘N’ Green Tomato Festival in Miamisburg, an event that has become a fundraiser for various community efforts.
The most recent recipient has been the Miamisburg High School girls basketball program to which the pair gave $8,000 to help build new dressing quarters and a team room so the girls’ long-bypassed facilities finally are comparable to the boys’ up-to-date locker room.
Jack’s daughter, also named Alex, was a senior standout for the Lady Vikings this past year– as well as the school’s Homecoming Queen, and, before that, a middle school football player – and next season she will play basketball at Capital University. His daughter Emma is a freshman at Miamisburg and involved in basketball, as well.
While Jack is well known in the community, he had something of a secret the past 15 years that he only shared with immediate family and close friends.
But as his reconnection with Alex developed into a long-distance romance – a union they eventually began to realize would turn to marriage – Jack shared the situation with her.
“When we started dating, he said, ‘There’s this thing I’ve got called Berger’s Disease,’” Alex said, using the common name for IgA nephropathy, a kidney disease that results when an immunoglobulin A (IgA) antibody lodges in your kidney.
Over time that can hamper the ability to filter wastes from your blood and, if not properly combatted, be fatal.
There is no cure.
“He told me it was slow progressing and he’d had no real problems, but that at some in his life he might need a kidney transplant,” Alex said. “He just didn’t know. “
“I said, ‘OK, we’ll see how it goes and deal with it if we ever have to.’
“Then last fall he went to a different nephrologist who told him, ‘It’s getting to be time. You need to look into getting a transplant.’
Jack said his nephrologist – Dr. Ibrahim Ahmad of Kidney Care Specialists in Kettering – told him he was in Stage IV renal failure. Just two weeks ago Jack said his kidneys were operating at only 14 percent.
The son and brother of doctors, he was well aware of his medical predicament and even more so because one of his uncles died from renal failure.
“We decided 2019 would be the year of the kidney,” Alex said. “I told Jack, ‘This is the year we get you all better and then in 2020 we can get on with the living-happily-ever-after part.’”
For that to happen, Jack had three options.
He could go on dialysis, which might add 10 years to his life. Or he could get on the wait list for a kidney transplant, either from a cadaver or a live donor. Either way the process could take a long time.
He was put on the wait list at both Ohio State’s Wexner Medical Center and the University of Cincinnati Medical Center.
“To get a cadaver kidney, the donor has to be on life support in the hospital, die there and be a donor,” Jack said. “Only 2 ½ percent of the population dies like that. The wait list for that can be 3 to 5 years, maybe 7 years.
“A living donor is the best, but finding a match is tough. You have to really hunt for someone to be your hero.”
And that’s when the miracle happened.
‘You can either stay down or you can get back up’
Like his two older brothers – Henry and Bob – Jack played offensive guard for Bob Gregg’s teams at Centervile.
In his career with the Elks, Jack lost just three games. He was the team captain his senior season, won first team All-Western Ohio League (WOL) honors and was an All-State second team honoree.
“I don’t look at myself as a great athlete, but just a typical Bob Gregg overachiever,” he said.
Following his senior season, he was presented with the Sonny Unger Award. It’s Centerville High most prestigious football honor, given annually to the player who best exemplifies the leadership, character, work ethic and athleticism of Lester “Sonny “Unger, the former Elks fullback who became the only Centerville resident killed in the Vietnam War.
According to a November 1966 account in the Dayton Daily News, Army authorities said Unger’s 21-man platoon, though “hopelessly outnumbered”, stood off a 400-man North Vietnamese Battalion for more than four hours, killing 102 enemy soldiers before finally calling for artillery fire, napalm and Skyraider plane attacks on their own position as they were being overrun.
Unger received the Bronze Star, two Purple Hearts and an oak leaf cluster for his heroism.
Along with all the accolades and trophies, Jack said he took something else away from Centerville football that has proven to be quite valuable:
“Bob Gregg used to say, ‘When you get knocked on your (butt), you’ve got a couple of choices. You can either stay down or you can get back up.’”
Jack has chosen the latter time and again in his life.
When he lost his previous job during a merger of companies, he made a bold career change and became just the sixth owner of the longtime Hamburger Wagon, which he rolls out onto Market Square each day and soon has a line of customers for those skillet-fried hamburgers that have remained unchanged for over a century.
Begun as a good-will offering to provide free food to Red Cross workers during the Great Flood of 1913 — a disaster that submerged downtown Miamisburg in 11-feet of water — the wagon recently was voted the best burger joint in Dayton two years straight and was featured as one of the nation’s top 150 burger joints in the book “Hamburger America.”
“It’s kind of like the Model T Ford, which you could get in any color, as long as it was black,” he laughed. “With our burgers, you can get them any way you want them, as long as it’s onions, pickles, salt and pepper.”
Just as that get-up-off-the-canvas mantra has worked in business for him, he said the resurgent attitude served him well when he was flattened by his latest kidney diagnosis.
“I had about a day when I felt a little sorry for myself,” he said quietly, his voice hitching on emotion, his eyes beginning to glisten.
“But then I was driving through my neighborhood coming to work and I happened to see a lady at a bus stop with her child who was in a wheelchair. The boy looked to be about 10 years old and his hands were contorted and his face was misfigured. He was very handicapped, but his mom was there tending to him and she was smiling and you could see the love and it hit me.
“I thought, ‘I don’t have anything to complain about.’”
As he was recalling that moment while sitting in a downtown coffee shop the other morning, the tears began to spill onto his cheers.
“I’m sorry, “he finally said. “I get a little emotional about this. Honestly, since that moment seeing the little boy and his mom, I haven’t gotten down like that again.
“I don’t know if you are religious or not, but I believe God did that. God made me see that there’s always somebody who has it worse. It made me realize I’ve had a great life.”
And it was about to get better.
After Alex’s daughter, Grace, graduates from high school next year, Alex plans to move back to the Miami Valley and she and Jack hope to wed.
“We talked last year how we planned to get engaged sometime before the end of the year,” Alex laughed. “And then on New Year’s Eve we were on the beach in Florida and he proposed.
“It’s kind of funny though. He waited until just two or three hours were left in the year. He cut it close.”
Finding his match
As his kidney functions worsened, Jack said Alex pushed him to get his story out:
“She said, ‘Jack, you can’t have your head in the sand. The only way to get a kidney is to get your situation out there.’
“People say I’m outgoing, but with stuff like this I’m pretty private. I didn’t want to blow my own horn and say, ‘Hey, look at me! I need this! Give me a gift! ‘ I just couldn’t do it.”
His brother Henry could. Although not on Facebook himself, he wrote an impassioned plea and posted it on Jack’s Facebook page in February.
The response was overwhelming.
“Oh my gosh, I heard from people all over the country. It was really humbling,” Jack said. “Guys I’d played football with – and against – reached out. So did my college fraternity brothers and even people who didn’t know me.
“Ron Holp, he’s going to be 87, he said, ‘I have an appointment to be tested as a donor.’
“And Kathy, my ex-wife – she’s a wonderful person and we still have a good relationship, I live probably 50 yards from her house – she signed up to be tested as a donor, too.
“One person after another stepped up. There are a lot of good people out there. It really restored my faith in humankind.”
And yet, finding a match proved very difficult.
In March, Alex went to get tested.
“I just had a feeling about it,” she said. “I felt God was giving me signs, telling me everything was going to be OK, telling me I was going to be it.”
After a series of genetic, health and blood tests, she awaited word.
“I was in the beauty parlor getting my hair done,” she said. “The girl who does my hair knows Jack, so when the phone rang and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is it!’ the whole place knew I was a blood match.”
Next came a lot more screening. There were psychological tests, stress tests, an EKG, a CAT scan, a urinalysis, more extensive blood tests and, she said, a meeting with a social worker to see is she was “mentally prepared” for what was to come.
Finally, she was cleared.
She would be Jack’s kidney donor.
“Alex turned out to be my hero,” Jack said
“I’ve had several people tell me, ‘You guys don’t realize what a miracle this is!’” Alex added. “The odds of you two being a match, it’s a miracle!’”
The transplant surgery is scheduled for May 20th at the UC Medical Center.
Alex said she’s been told she’ll have an 80 percent kidney function afterward and that her remaining kidney will grow and pick up some of the slack.
“Sure I’m a little nervous, but I keep going back to God telling me everything will be OK,” she said. “And the UC donor team has been super nice and helpful. So I’m confident.”
Yet, if the need arises, Jack said his buddy Ron teasingly suggested a back-up plan:
“He and his son got a beef kidney and were going to present it to me, saying something like ‘Hey Jack. we know you need a kidney. ‘But then Ron thought I was having a bad week or something, so they didn’t do it.
“I told them it would have been perfect. And they said they still have it and if things didn’t work out with Alex to give them two days and they could have it thawed out.”
Jack’s brother, Bob, got into the act as well and, with tongue planted firmly in cheek, speculated on how the transplant experience can turn into wedded bliss.
“He said, ‘This is either going to be a Hallmark movie or a TMZ episode,’” Jack laughed. “He said, ‘Let’s make it a Hallmark moment.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I think that’s the way to go.’”
Alex agrees: “We’re hoping to just settle into life together and watch our kids get into college and graduate and accomplish their own dreams. We just want to enjoy our family and friends and each other’s company.”
And that reminded Jack of something:
“My favorite Christmas movie is, ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’ In it, there’s a scene where his brother toasts him, saying, ‘To my big brother George, the richest man in town!’
With his eyes again brimming with tears, Jack said quietly: “That’s how I feel!”
Then with a smile and an eye-drying hunch, he added:
“Of course, when it comes to Alex now, I don’t think I’ll ever win another argument.“
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