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Apple of Wilbraham's eye remembered

Wayne N. Rice
By Natasha Clark

Assistant Managing Editor

WILBRAHAM "He gets up before the dawn, packs a lunch and a thermos full of coffee. It's another day in the dusty haze."

Such a simple lyric from Jason Aldean's "Amarillo Sky" was used to capture the essence of the late Wayne N. Rice. On Dec. 8, more than 200 people turned out to remember Rice, a longtime town fixture with roots as deep as the fruit trees in his orchard.

Inside Wilbraham Funeral Home stories, tears and laughter were shared. At 63, Rice was as dedicated to his orchard, and the well-known Rice's Fruit Farm, as ever still working in the field up to 14 hours a day.

His love for the outdoors was reiterated throughout the service. Born in Westfield and raised in Wilbraham, Rice is a 1961 graduate of Minnechaug Regional High School and a veteran of the Vietnam War. Rice and his wife Tracy are the parents of two daughters, Kimberly Ann Cullison of Palmer and Amy Catherine Rice.

"He was an icon of Wilbraham," Frank O'Brien, director of Wilbraham Funeral Home, said a few days before the memorial service. "He was a very simple New England farmer who gave his time to the town."

The Rice Family has been heavily involved with the preservation of open space in Wilbraham. The family turned 150 acres of their land into Wilbraham conservation property, keeping 90 acres as workable farmland.

Mr. O'Dell, a retired Central High School technology teacher, recalled walking through the orchard as a child. Seated in the last row of seats in the funeral home as attendees continuously filed in, O'Dell shared that he's been walking in the orchard for 43 years. He said that when he was a child, Boy Scouts from Warner School and Our Lady of Sacred Heart picked apples at the orchard.

O'Dell said that even late in life he would see Rice in the orchards and they would talk or sometimes they would just wave.

"I would listen for his truck. He would drive it in first gear, very slowly," O'Dell said.

Fredy Steng, who had a 40-year friendship with Rice and also guided the memorial service, said, "Wayne was a man of the soil."

Steng said one of Rice's biggest joys was to watch someone bite into the orchard's fruit and see the juices run down their face.

York Mayo said he and his wife have been walking through the orchard since 1982. Once or twice during the week he would stop and chat with Rice who was normally accompanied by his dog Sam. Mayo shared several funny stories about Rice and said that Rice used to say, "Tough times don't last, but tough people do."

Joseph Kalinko said he and Rice took pride in learning one new thing per day and he described Rice as the master link in a chain fence.

"I can't believe the trip is over," Amy C. Rice said.

Before the service closed with a poem, one of Rice's two daughters shared her emotion about his passing and all the wonderful things he'd taught her and others and ended with their familiar sentiment, "I love you tomorrow."