After an inspiring lifetime of service to those less fortunate, Vivian Wixted got a huge surprise for her 80th birthday last Sunday, when she had the opportunity to ride a horse for the first time in 20 years.
Because of her progressive Parkinson’s disease, Vivian can no longer speak and has to communicate with the aid of a white board, so her husband, Clem, and their daughters helped share her story on Monday.
Clem and Vivian Wixted have been married for 57 years but have been together for most of their lives, having meet in Catholic School when they were kids.
“Vivian and I met when she was 12 and I was 14. We got married 10 years later and last September we celebrated 114 years of marriage,” Clem laughed as he doubled the 57 because he said they both put in their time.
“I still remember the first time I saw her,” he smiled as he recalled their younger days with joy in his eyes. “I was carrying the candle and she was carrying flowers.”
The couple married in September of 1964 and started their own family.
They have two daughters, Cathy Irizarry of Texarkana, Texas, and Theresa Cardillo of Little Egg Harbor, NJ, and one son, Mike Wixted of Tulsa, Okla.
Although they all live in different states, they remain a close knit family and visit at least two to three times a year.
“Vivian loved horseback riding,” Clem recalled, “and even gave riding lessons to some teen girls, after Bible study, at our home.”
Vivian also served as a volunteer in Pocahontas at a private hippotherapy ranch for a while but she hasn’t ridden in years.
Hippotherapy is a form of physical, occupational and speech therapy in which a therapist uses the characteristic movements of a horse to provide carefully graded motor and sensory input, according to the National Library of Medicine website.
“She always loved horses,” Cathy recalled. “Had eight different horses over the years and generally tried to keep about four at a time.”
Clem is a retired technical writer and then press manager at WA Krueger, which was a printing firm and one of the nation’s largest printers of paperback books, magazines and catalogs.
Before his retirement after 57 years in the industry, they would move to Virginia so he could start a job at Red Buck, another printing firm at the time, and would be forced to sell their animals to a neighbour. However, they would get the animals back a few years later when they returned to Jonesboro.
“For her 80th birthday, our family arranged for a therapeutic horseback ride right here on our 10 acres,” Clem said, “where she has ridden many times.”
All three of their children were also there for Vivian’s big day, which was also a surprise for her.
After an internet search, Clem discovered Diego Ranch, Inc., which is owned by Michael Jackson, a resident of Jonesboro for 32 years, who also has a passion for horses and helping others.
Although Diego Ranch isn’t officially open for business yet, after a conversation with Clem, Jackson decided he wanted to help.
According to Clem, Jackson plans to open the ranch to help kids with special needs (like autism) and to provide riding lessons and help kids and adults learn about training.
According to Jackson’s Facebook, www.facebook.com/diegoranch, his vision for his company is to unite the sentience of a horse with that of a person suffering from mental, emotional and physical impairment seeking a natural and powerful healing modality.
When Clem told Jackson about Vivian’s story, Jackson wanted to help.
“Within three or four hours after I contacted him,” Clem said, “he had decided he wanted to bring a horse out to our old ranch.”
Although the Wixteds no longer have any horses, they still live on their ranch, once known as the Peace Gate Ranch.
So on March 20, for Vivian’s 80th birthday, Jackson brought out a three-step ramp and a horse named Ranger.
Vivian said she put her left foot into the stirrup and then got her right leg over the horse and she was ready to go.
“I loved sitting up on the horse,” Vivian excitedly wrote on her board, noting that that was her favorite part of the whole day.
This was a well-deserved reward for such a giving person, according to their proud daughters.
The Wixteds have always been faithful Christians, they noted about their parents.
Clem was a substitute teacher for 20 years at the Ridgefield Christian School and led Bible studies at their church.
“Dad was always a good teacher,” Theresa said.
They are members of the Highland Drive Baptist Church, though since COVID-19 they have had to mostly attend online. They were members of the Fellowship Bible Church before that.
Vivian also led Bible studies, not only for the teenage girls that she taught to ride at their ranch, but also at a local prison.
She was a certified religious assistant (CRA) at the McPherson Unit, which is located in Jackson County, four miles northeast of Newport.
A CRA is a prison volunteer that helps the prison chaplain to help bring faith-based teaching to the inmates.
She had to be selected, approved and trained to go into areas approved by the unit warden without escort to minister one-on-one to inmates and staff on a nondenominational basis, according to her family.
“She still gets letters from inmates,” Cathy said. “They are still her friends, and she still loves them.”
“Mom taught anger resolution and the PAL (Principles and Applications for Life) Program,” she said, noting that the PAL Program included worship services, distributing religious materials and providing counseling services to the inmates.
Theresa said that she would eat lunch with them, pray with them, listen to them, console them, encourage and visit them on her own time as well, “They really were her friends.”
They laughed as they recalled calling to check on their parents and their father, Clem, answering the phone and laughing, “It’s Tuesday, your mom is in prison again.”
“She was there every Tuesday,” Clem said. “She only had to volunteer eight hours a month but she was there for at least eight hours a week.”
She was named CRA of the year at the McPherson Prison in 2017. Vivian would do prison ministry for 20 years before being forced to retire in 2019 after a serious car accident in Cash and finding out that she had Parkinson’s in the spring of 2018.
Vivian keeps all the letters from her dear friends at the prison, and her daughters are helping her organize them into binders.
“The letters are very important to her and she cherishes every one of them,” Cathy said.
Since being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, Clem said that it has effected her in many ways, such as her hand-eye coordination, balance, voice and hearing.
“That is why she uses the whiteboard, because her voice is so soft that you cannot hear her,” he said. “It has also impacted our social life.”
He said that she was going to St. Bernards’ Rock Steady Boxing classes, which they loved, but then the pandemic hit and slowed it down.
Vivian said that she had joined some support groups for her Parkinson’s and did receive a lot of good information about her disease and how to cope with it.
“In one of those groups, I learned of a program called Rock Steady Boxing held at St. Bernards Health and Wellness Center,” Vivian wrote in a letter Clem shared. “It is designed to help slow down the progression of Parkinson’s by using vigorous exercises, and the boxing exercises are some of the best.”
“They help with balance, hand-eye coordination, breathing and shouting (for voice improvement), among its many benefits,” she said. “I attended classes three times a week and really enjoyed it. We had great instructors and I made friends with some good people in the class. These classes were going along very well and The Jonesboro Sun did a whole article about me, and the boxing program, with a big photo of me.”
“Can you picture it?” she said in the letter. “A little old, white-haired, 80-pound lady with boxing gloves on hitting a heavy bag and keeping a speed bag going. I loved it!”
“She loved the speed bag and was good at it,” Clem laughed. “She would just keep it going so fast. And the social aspect as amazing.”
“It was a blessing to many people,” Cathy said noting that there were also many Parkinson’s support groups, including the Parkinson’s Support Group at Encompass Health Rehabilitation Hospital, PWR Exercise Community Class and the Parkinson’s Community Awareness Event on April 1 at St. Bernards Auditorium.
In the wake of her ongoing battle with the disease, Vivian and Clem have also started what they call their “Parkinson’s Partners” booklet, along with local events and meetings for people suffering from the disease in Northeast Arkansas.
Vivian expressed her thanks to her 35 guests and to everyone from all over who sent letters for her birthday.
“But my favorite part was being on the horse,” Vivian reiterated. “It felt so comfortable.”