For most of his adult life, people addressed Al Spradling Jr. as "Senator." The 6-foot-4-inch Democrat with the sonorous voice was proud to represent Cape Girardeau in the Missouri Senate, and Cape Girardeau was proud of the man who became known as the father of the state's modern mental health system.
He retired from the Senate in 1977 after a 25-year-career but remained interested and in touch with the workings of the legislature until his death Oct. 20 at age 84.
Spradling had an interesting life. After earning a law degree, he became an FBI special agent in the 1940s, helping keep Russian spies away from the Berkeley, Calif., lab where the atomic bomb was being developed. "We knew about the bomb, but we sure couldn't breathe it to a soul," he told a reporter in 1994. "It scared the hell out of me."
In 1952 at age 31, Spradling became the then-youngest person ever elected to the Missouri Senate. As a legislator and conservative Democrat, he was known for his willingness to cross the aisle to get things done. In the 1950s, he sparked a revolution in the state's antiquated mental health programs. His support for mental health issues continued all his life. For 50 years, he provided free legal services to VIP Industries and sheltered workshops.
He also helped gain passage of the state's open meetings law.
In 1980, Spradling's support helped Republican Bill Emerson unseat six-term Democrat Bill Burlison in the 8th District Congressional race.
Throughout their lives, Spradling and his late wife, Margaret, were travelers. They visited more than 100 countries and most of the state capitals. During one 23-day stretch they circled the globe, traveling 32,000 miles on the supersonic Concorde.
Spradling was president pro tem of the Senate from 1961 to 1964. Afterward he considered running for governor but decided not to. Former Gov. Jim Blair, a good friend and political ally, had died a few years earlier, and Spradling had two teen-aged sons to help raise at home. That was the election in which Warren Hearnes became governor.
He resigned from the Senate in 1977 only because of a new law requiring doctors and lawyers running for office to release the names of their clients. Spradling and 15 other lawyers who left the Senate that year refused. Two months later, the Missouri Supreme Court found the law unconstitutional.
Spradling said he never regretted the choice he made not to run for governor. One of those sons, Al Spradling III, would become mayor of Cape Girardeau and is a highly regarded lawyer. Al Spradling Jr. and Al Spradling III were in practice together. The other son, the Rev. Robert Spradling, is a minister in Lee's Summit, Mo.
Al Spradling Jr. was one of our homegrown greats.