PROFILE: Mary Spinks

November 20, 2021
By T Michele Walker

From water skier, fisherman, waitress, to Home Depot employee, Mary Spinks has done it all. But please don’t call her “first mate” as she prefers the title of “admiral.” The distinction is important when you’re the wife of a captain.

On the surface, one wouldn’t think a woman from ice-tundra Minnesota would have a lot in common with a fisherman from the panhandle of sunny Florida. For Mary and Tater Spinks, the stars aligned for a match made in heaven.

Born and raised in St. Cloud, Minnesota, Mary Kilian was one of 13 children. “Nine girls and four boys, and I’m number five,” Mary said. “Tater is number five in his family, too.”

The Tater that she is referring to is Captain Tater Spinks, Mary’s husband of 43 years and fellow partner on the high seas. 

“We both came from big families. I was raised in a little bitty town of St. Augusta which is outside of Saint Cloud. My dad had a trucking company, Kilian trucking. The whole town had big families like that. It was a little farm town.”

Minnesota just happens to be known as the Land of 10,000 Lakes, which is a perfect place for a future fisherman. “I always loved fishing and it was funny that coming to Florida, I was drawn to the fishing right at the get-go.”

Minnesotan’s love fishing so much that they find ways to do it in the winter. “Ice fishing, more like ice drinking,” Mary laughed. “We would mostly go with our boyfriends. They did the fishing and we stayed warm in the corner.” 

One of Mary’s many talents was water skiing, even though she is quite modest about her achievements. “Yes, I was in the water ski show way back in high school. It was a restaurant called Pirate’s Cove on the Mississippi River.”

The restaurant owner supplied the boats, matching wets suits and the group would perform water skiing stunts, complete with the show-stopping pyramid. 

“My father was so proud. He even brought the family. People would come and eat and watch us. We performed on the 4th of July before the fireworks. We were just a ship of fools, but we had so much fun.” 

Mary even excelled at the infamous barefoot water-skiing trick. “Most of the guys could and I could, too, but I wasn’t as good as they were.”

Instead of cashing in and performing at Cypress Gardens, Mary met Tater. “Yeah, I wanted to water ski at Cypress Gardens, but then I met him,” Mary said with a laugh. 

“I ruined her water-skiing career,” Tater said, peeking around the corner.

Mary’s journey from Minnesota to Florida was all because of a boy, or rather, a broken engagement. “I was engaged to a college boy. We had the wedding invitations, and I had my dress and the whole bit, but we decided to not get married.  His parents wanted him to finish college.” 

Mary’s sister was planning to move to the Florida Keys with her best friend, but when the plans fell through and her friend ended up staying in Minnesota, Mary jumped at the chance for adventure.

“I ended up in Key West with my sister and lived there for almost a year. I was going to move back to Minnesota. I was dating a guy that was a captain on a boat and it didn’t work out.”

In came Capt. Tater Spinks.

“We dated a couple of times in Marathon where I met him. He only knew me as “Mary from Minnesota.” He didn’t even have my phone number.”

Was it love at first sight? “Pretty much,” Mary said, with a slight blush. “By the time we got to Fort Myers, it was officially done. It was two weeks of dating, and then boat rides and then he never got rid of me.”

Tater couldn’t have chosen a more auspicious first date. “We had just met, and he asked me to go for a boat ride to Boca Grande. On the way, we stopped in Fort Myers and went snook fishing and raccoon and possum hunting. It was such great fun!”

It wasn’t long before Tater popped the question. “He asked me to marry him five times before I said ‘yes.’ I just didn’t know if he was really serious.”

The wedding was a simple affair, with a few friends. “It was perfect,” said Mary. And they’ve been captain and admiral ever since.

It wasn’t long before Mary and Tater were living in Boca Grande. 

“Boca Grande is the greatest. It was surreal, getting on this yacht that Tater ran for these people. He was living on it at the time. The owners of the company took me right in and a year after we got married, we got a place on the island rather than staying on the boat all the time. The greatest people are here in Boca Grande.” 

“We paid $275 a month in rent,” Tater added.

“But it went up to $500 while we were there,” added Mary. 

“Everybody was so friendly and wonderful. We lived there after his job ended with the Avondale Mills. It wasn’t too shabby.” 

Mary’s family would visit Boca Grande often. “They still visit to this day. My family is very important to me. I love family with all my heart and soul, every single child, niece, and nephew, we are all very close.” 

Mary’s love was put to the test when her sister was diagnosed with liver cancer. “It was my sister Jane, and it was a really bad tumor. One day she called and said she had cancer and it was a bad one and that they’re going to do radiation. They didn’t know if she was going to be able to have a donor or not.”

Once it was determined that Jane was a candidate for a liver donor, Mary immediately went in to be tested to see if she would be a match.

“I went in and they told me that I had a fatty liver, so I was bummed out because I wanted to help her.”

Mary refused to take no for an answer. “I came home and then I lost weight and took care of myself. Three months later, I had a biopsy done, it was okay and away we went.” 

The surgery was a success, and because of the transplant, Jane was able to live a few more years.

“At the Mayo Clinic, they explained that seven percent of the people that get a liver transplant, for some reason, they end up with lung cancer in the upper right lobe,” explained Tater.

Sadly, that was the case for Jane. 

“Three months later, she went for her checkup, and they found the spot on her lung,” Mary said, holding back the tears. “And so she went back up to the Mayo Clinic and they removed it. After that, it was not good. It spread and ate her like the evil thing that it is. She was gone by January.”

The one message Mary would like to share is to be an organ donor. “I wish every person in this world would have it on their license, to be a donor. People are in need, and you can’t take it with you.”

Looking back, Mary has no regrets. “It’s just unfortunate that it came back the way it did, but I guess He had bigger plans for her. But I have no regrets and I would do it all again in a heartbeat.” 

Today Mary works at Home Depot, where she admits to not being incredibly handy around the house but is passionate about plants. 

“She might not be handy, but she sure can cook,” offered her biggest fan, Tater.

“I love Home Depot and they have been very good to me. I started as a cashier and I remained on the front end then went to a head cashier, then I became the supervisor of the front end. About six years ago, my husband said, ‘Hey, remember me?’ Because I was bringing it home and too caught up in it. It was a rude awakening, so I stepped down. I love going to work and I love my people.”

Mary would thrive in any workplace, but even her captain husband admits she is one heck of a fisherman. How many women do you know that have caught a 400-pound hammerhead shark? “That was one of my biggest ever, but I just love it. Tater and I were commercial fishing off of Panama City where we fished for about a month and a half and caught 15,000 pounds of fish. It was just usually Tater, one other guy, and me.” 

For Mary and Tater, life revolves around family and fishing. “You know, Tater and I never had children, but he has two children that have been in my life for 43 years and now we have seven grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren. I wish they lived closer, but that’s why I hope to retire soon myself.” 

“It’s funny because as I sit here, I think to myself how sad I am that we sold the boat and that I’m bored, we never go anywhere, and we never do anything.  And then I think, ‘Wait a minute, Mary, we have been there, done it, did again, good times, bad times, sad times.’ We have experienced a lot of things.”

While Mary is grateful for her life of adventure on the seas, she does have a few bucket items on her list. “I want to go marlin fishing. I want to catch a blue marlin once in my life. Maybe in Costa Rica.”

No matter what happens, Mary and Tater have their photo album filled with precious memories of family, water-skiing, and fishing trips. “Look at these photos,” Mary said with a laugh. “I just always had to have my hair done.”

As Mary and Tater sift through the photographic evidence of their life of adventure, Mary said wistfully, “Those were the dang days, that for sure.”