A big man in a leather jacket, blue jeans and motorcycle boots scared the living tar out of 2,000 Niagara-Wheatfield school students Thursday.
Rick Stoddard, a nationally known anti-smoking activist, brought gasps from his young audience as he gave a graphic account of his wife's illness and death from lung cancer.
During three slide-show presentations in the high school auditorium, he read grisly details from a diary he kept at the time, describing his wife's hair loss, tumors and seizures .
He slammed innocent looking cigarette advertisements in such publications as Family Circle magazine and seductive ads in racier magazines aimed at young people.
He held up a 3-pint soda bottle filled with a black liquid. "This is how much tar gets into your lungs after smoking for a year," he said as groans of disgust filled the auditorium.
The temptation for students to smoke is as close as Smokin' Joe's discount cigarette store directly opposite the school on Saunders Settlement Road, noted Dawn Yeates, a school counselor. "We're aware of the dangers, and we have several programs for kids," she said.
Stoddard's wife, Marie, died at age 46 in January 2000, slightly more than five months after being diagnosed with lung cancer. She had smoked cigarettes since she was 13. Stoddard, a burly carpenter from Alabama, is perhaps best known for the 2001 Super Bowl commercial and his stark statement: "I guess I never thought of 23 as middle aged."
Since then, Stoddard has written a book, "The Burning Truth," and taken his anti-smoking message to more than 300,000 young people in 600 schools nationwide.
"He's awesome," said Katie Latchford, an 11th-grade student whose father and grandmother smoke. "They weren't here to hear him, but they'll be hearing from me."
Amy Cavanaugh, another 11th-grader, said she doesn't smoke and certainly won't start now. "What he told us is so dramatic, it's scary."
Last year, Stoddard spoke at Sanborn's Edward Town Middle School, where pupils rushed on stage to talk to him personally and get his autograph, said Mary Graber, Niagara-Wheatfield school counselor. "He makes such an impact on kids because he looks like he could be their neighbor or their uncle or anyone," she said. "We had to get him back here."
Smoking claims the lives of 440,000 Americans every year, Stoddard told the students. "If 440,000 people died every year from eating potato chips, you wouldn't eat potato chips," he said. "Why in the world would you smoke?"