Working through the pain

By Mickey Winfield: PNT Staff Writer

Nearly every day, Joe Chandler stares down severe pain in almost every joint in his body to take a functionless block of wood and turn it into the essence of function as home and office furniture.

The 53-year-old has worked with wood for nearly 30 years for the Portales-based company he created — Pioneer Woodworkers — the last 21 of those years in his 9,000-square-foot workshop on the Arch Highway. He works there with his wife, Lora, son Chad, and an employee of about 10 years, Darren Warren.

“I’ve always worked with wood,” Joe Chandler said. “Whenever I was a little bitty boy, my dad had a small garage shop, and he allowed my brother and I to work with his jigsaw, and he’d give us a broom handle and we’d make farm equipment out of that wood.”

But for the last several years, Chandler has had a hurdle standing in the way of doing what he loves.

When he was a teenager, he was diagnosed with spondylitis, an inflammatory form of arthritis that affects the spine and joints and can affect vital organs of the body.

The disease strikes about one in every 200 adults and is similar to rheumatoid arthritis in the daily pain it causes.

In fact, Chandler has battled through more than 30 surgeries since being diagnosed, and three surgeries this February alone.

“Right now, it’s difficult,” Chandler said. “I don’t have much time (in my workshop) at all because I can’t stand it. I hurt all the time, I’m in pain 100 percent of the time.”

Chandler was originally diagnosed with the rare disease in 1971, when he was drafted to fight in Vietnam. A physical in Amarillo revealed the ailment that kept him out of the military and would hinder him for the rest of his life.

“I told ’em I had a problem with my elbow, I couldn’t hardly move it,” Chandler said.

“They looked at me and then looked at my elbow and they took some pictures, and they said, ‘Boy, we don’t want no part of you. You’re going to be having this all your life.’”

Before starting his business in 1980, the Portales resident was unhappy, working for the city street department.

After getting a jigsaw and a half-sheet pad sander from his grandfather, he built and sold a bookcase for a California woman before renting a building on Second Street in Portales. As the jobs and orders picked up, Chandler moved Pioneer Woodworkers to its current location in 1985.

In addition to his woodworking, Chandler also helped Portales’ Peanuts design its first plant, before the company expanded to its current size.

“My dad asked me to quit what I was doing and help him build a peanut plant. We didn’t know anything about it, so we hired people who knew how to build a peanut plant,” Chandler said. “My dad brought the idea to Sunland in 1988. I worked on it for 300 hours in this shop, just designing the plant. … I had to empty this entire shop and turn it into a steel manufacturing (shop).”

Chandler’s Pioneer Woodworking has built office furniture and teller booths for Portales National Bank as well.

Chandler is also all about his family. Joe, Lora and their three children have spent thousands of hours improving their 10-acre property just east of Portales. In more than 20 years, Chandler and his family have built a pond stocked with bass, a bridge and a log cabin, not to mention planting about 1,500 trees. And he said he passed on his knowledge to his children the whole way.

“In the space of time that it took those boys to grow up — from the time they were babies till the time they were 18 or 19 years old and they went to college, this is what they did. They planted, they grew, they learned woodworking, they learned mechanics, they learned steel working, they learned all types of house building and car building. I tried to teach them everything that I could possibly teach them.”

Despite the daily pain Chandler deals with, his wife says staying busy is what keeps her husband from giving up.

“It’s what keeps him living,” Lora said. “If he didn’t have all these interests, he would give into that.”

“Give it up?” Chandler asked. “Give it up for what? I will, though it won’t be long before I have to give this up. … It’ll be very sad whenever I have to leave it, and it won’t be long.”