"I guess I never thought of 23 as middle-aged."
Rick Stoddard spoke those words into a camera for a television commercial in 2000. The commercial told the story of his wife, Marie's, death due to lung cancer through snapshots and his own words. "She died from smoking cigarettes."
Clay City Jr/Sr High School, North Clay Middle School and Northview High School students recently watched the complete series of TV announcements Stoddard made.
"I'm here because I am totally convinced that you are the generation that will make a difference," Stoddard said. "I'm not a public speaker. I'm just a carpenter. A redneck from the south that likes motorcycles and pickup trucks. And like most of my friends, I started smoking when I was 12. I used to think that cancer happened to someone else."
He told of his own experience with cigarettes, how he met his wife and of their life together before and after her diagnosis of cancer. It is a love story filled with humor, and tragedy.
"I shaved off my hair knowing that Marie was going to lose hers because of the radiation treatments. I thought it would cheer her up, make her laugh," Stoddard said. His wife endured 12 radiation treatments as he stood helpless, holding her hand. "And it was funny, until she began to lose her hair. Standing in my kitchen cutting off the last of my wife's hair with a pair of scissors was terrible."
He still shaves his head.
"When I do it I think of many things," Stoddard said. "I think of Marie. I think of our life together. I remember what she went through because of the tobacco companies. I think of you. Your generation has the opportunity to change the future."
The personal story touches many that hear it because of their own experiences.
"When I was four years old my grandma died of lung cancer," said Kalissa Rader, a 14-year old NCMS eighth-grader. "People need to stop smoking so they'll stop dying. That's what all this is about."
The program was for the students, but the teachers were also affected.
"He just hits the mark," NCMS teacher Russ True said. His family has also been touched by lung cancer. "You just can't help but hear the message."
Stoddard's passionate journey to educate youth and adults on the dangers of cigarette smoking began after his wife's death. The effort to reach just one person about the dangers of smoking has taken him to more than 400 schools across the country. He is on the road 200 days a year, and the travel is a hard burden to bear.
He has spoken to more than 300,000 students.
"I ask myself sometimes how long I can keep doing this, reliving Marie's death three times a day, five days a week," Stoddard said. "But I'll make a deal with you. I won't give up if you at least think about the decision to not smoke."
Stoddard's visit to the three schools was funded by the Clay Coalition for a Smoke Free County and the Indiana Tobacco Prevention and Cessation organization.
"More than 400,000 Americans die yearly from health issues caused by smoking cigarettes," Stoddard said.
He feels that each person in the audience is an extension of his family.
"You belong to me now. I don't want any one of you to die."