Cape's mental-health champion dies at 84

Friday, October 22, 2004

Al Spradling Jr., a former Democratic state senator from Cape Girardeau who championed modern mental-health programs in Missouri, died Wednesday night at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis. He was 84. He served in the Missouri Senate for 25 years.

"He was the modern-day architect for mental-health programs in Missouri," said Hilary Schmittzehe, a longtime friend who heads up Cape Girardeau's VIP Industries, which employs the mentally handicapped.

Schmittzehe said Spradling -- the father of former Mayor Al Spradling III -- pushed legislation and lawmaker investigations that helped transform a state mental-health system that had been doing little more than warehousing the mentally retarded.

Spradling was a very friendly man who often did legal work for people for free. He was the attorney for VIP Industries and sheltered workshops for 50 years.

"He never charged us a dime," Schmittzehe said. "He was honest. He was always doing the right thing."

Spradling, who was born and raised in Cape Girardeau, at one time was the city attorney for Cape Girardeau. He was first elected to the state Senate in 1952 and served in the legislature until 1977.

He served as president pro tem of the Senate for four years in the early 1960s.

While heading up the state Senate, he served 23 days as acting governor of the state while the elected governor and lieutenant governor were traveling outside the state.

During that time, Schmittzehe remembered Spradling visited a mental institution at Farmington. Spradling told a patient that he was acting governor of Missouri. Schmittzehe said the patient replied, "They have good doctors here. They will knock that silly notion out of your mind in about three days. When I first came here, I thought I was Napoleon."

Spradling used to chuckle at the memory of that conversation.

"I am certainly going to miss him," Schmittzehe said. "He was a lifetime friend."

Friend and fellow Cape Girardeau County lawyer Al Lowes said Spradling had a good reputation as a lawyer but was an even better person.

"I just thought he was a damn fine human being," Lowes said. "I just think he was a likable fellow."

Spradling worked as an FBI agent in California during World War II. He had practiced law in Cape Girardeau from 1945 until his death.

He could regularly be found in the Broadway law office he shared with son Al Spradling III.

Al Spradling III said his father taught him patience and a keen knack to listen to others. The former mayor was a teenager when then President Harry Truman visited the Spradling home to chat with Al Spradling Jr.

Al Spradling III said he enjoyed working with his father in the practice of law for 30 years.

"That was one of the fun things I had an opportunity to do," he said.

The former mayor said his father used to offer up some colorful advice when it came to politics.

"I remember him saying, 'I never get mad, I just get even.'"

Besides Spradlling III, survivors include another son, the Rev. Robert Spradling of Lee's Summit, Mo., and six grandchildren.

In addition to championing mental-health issues, Al Spradling Jr. also helped push legislation creating the state's open meetings law despite opposition from state agencies at the time.

A conservative Democrat, Spradling broke ranks with the Democratic Party in the early 1980s by endorsing Republican candidate Bill Emerson for Congress.

"Having someone of the stature of former state Senator Al Spradling to support Bill Emerson broke the ice in the Democratic stronghold of Southeast Missouri," said Lloyd Smith of Sikeston, Mo. "It made a tremendous difference."

Smith formerly worked for Emerson and now is chief of staff for Emerson's widow, Jo Ann Emerson, who succeeded the late Bill Emerson to the 8th District congressional seat.

Bill Emerson and Spradling both loved to talk about southern Missouri history, Smith said. "They loved to tell stories. It was fun around them when they would chat."

Spradling often said a lot with just a few words. "He was quick to the point, and usually one sentence for former Senator Spradling was a paragraph for everybody else," Smith said.

Visitation will be held today from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Ford & Sons Mount Auburn Funeral Home. Funeral service will be at 10 a.m. Saturday at Lynwood Baptist Church. Burial will be in Cape Girardeau County Memorial Park Cemetery.

mbliss@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 123

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: