The pain of a sudden and tragic death was present Friday during a memorial service for a prominent South Carolina lobbyist.
Hundreds of family, friends and colleagues filled the old wooden pews inside Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in downtown Columbia for a memorial service for Tom Sponseller, the former chief executive officer of the SC Hospitality Association.
“We didn’t get to say goodbye to Tom,” Mike Johnson, a close friend and neighbor, said to those gathered. “That’s why we are all hurting.”
Sponseller died Feb. 18 from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound, according to a preliminary autopsy. But his body was not discovered until Tuesday, leaving his family to spend 11 days in uncertainty and worry.
His disappearance generated concern and made news for the better part of two weeks.
First, Sponseller’s prominence as the chief executive officer of the S.C. Hospitality Association, a trade group that represents the state’s $14 billion tourism industry, led to statewide concern over his well-being when his family reported him missing.
Next, the U.S. Secret Service confirmed an investigation into hundreds of thousands of dollars in missing money from the association. Rachel Duncan, one of Sponseller’s former co-workers, has been named as a person of interest in the case by Michael Williams, the special agent in charge of the Secret Service’s Columbia office.
And, finally, his co-workers’ discovery of a three-page letter and empty gun packaging in his desk led to a public outcry that the Columbia Police Department had bungled the search. As a result, two veteran officers are no longer with the department.
The specter of the those problems lurked in the homily offered by Johnson and the Rev. Gray Lesesne, a priest at Christ Church Cathedral in Indianapolis and a Sponseller relative.
“Like you, we do not understand all that has transpired over the past 13 days,” Lesesne said, speaking to Sponseller’s family.
But Friday’s service was a time for family and friends to step away from the fallout of Sponseller’s disappearance and remember his life.
Lesesne asked the audience to stop thinking about the room where Sponseller spent the darkest hour of his life. Instead, he asked them to focus on the other places where he spent the best times of his life.
“He was equally as comfortable in the grandest rooms of the State House or Governor’s Mansion as he was on his back deck,” he said. “He could make a convention hall of 1,000 feel like an intimate gathering of five.”
Sponseller, 61, is survived by his wife, Meg, and their three adult children, Thomas Sponseller Jr., Meghan Ward and Curtis Sponseller. He also has three grandchildren; a fourth is due later this month.
Sponseller was a graduate of The Citadel and a former U.S. Air Force officer. He spent part of his career working directly in the food service industry, then became a representative of the industry. He was instrumental in merging the state’s hotel and restaurant associations into the S.C. Hospitality Association and served as that group’s CEO from 1991 until his death.
Sponseller was remembered as a family man who was called “Papa Tom” by his grandchildren. He was a handy man and a prankster, said Johnson, who also recalled the “Tom who knows everyone. If not, he thinks he does.”
Finally, Johnson spoke of how much he trusted Sponseller.
“Tom never disappointed me and will be in our hearts forever,” Johnson said. “We love you, Tom. Rest in peace.”