The last time Jim Gambrell saw his friend Tom Sponseller was on the corner of Main and Lady streets in downtown Columbia.
“That was about two weeks ago,” said Gambrell of the tourism industry executive and former Air Force officer who has been missing for a week now.
Gambrell, director of the city of Columbia’s Office of Economic Development, is also Sponseller’s former brother-in-law. No longer married into the family, Gambrell said he remains friends with Sponseller and his family.
“They love me. And I love him,” Gambrell said.
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“He’s just a good guy.”
Say the name Tom Sponseller to those who know or work with him from across the state, and you’ll hear the words “straightforward,” “very knowledgeable,” “helpful,” “trustworthy” and “accessible,” repeated again and again.
Gambrell described Sponseller as a “loving husband, a great father and wonderful with children.” He also is a great uncle, Gambrell added.
Gambrell said the two often run into each other downtown. Gambrell’s Main Street office is right around the corner from the S.C. Hospitality Association, where Sponseller worked for more than 15 years as a lobbyist and chief executive officer before he was reported missing a week ago.
Gambrell said he’d often see Sponseller out “doing that bad habit thing” – smoking a cigarette – and the two would stop and chat. That’s exactly where Gambrell found him two weeks ago.
“We had a nice conversation,” Gambrell said. “We’d always stop and talk about our kids. We were always trying to find a time when we could go to dinner.”
Ric Luber, a friend and colleague of Sponseller, said he first encountered the lobbyist when Luber came to town five years ago to serve as president and CEO of the Midlands Authority for Conventions, Sports & Tourism.
“He was one of the first people I met,” Luber said. “And he was one of the first people I wanted to talk to legislatively at the state level.”
Like many others who know or work with Sponseller, Luber said Sponseller’s plain-talking style and business acumen made an impression on him.
“He was able to sit down and give me the overview statewide as well as locally,” he said.
Luber, who said Sponseller became his source of information for what was happening in the industry, said Sponseller could take a subject and “cut right through it. There was no mumbo jumbo involved,” Luber said. “He would say, ‘This is how it is, this is the way to go and this is the way to do it.’”
Longtime friend and associate Gary Loftus seconded Luber’s assessment.
“If Tom told me it was 3 o’clock in the afternoon, I didn’t have to look at my watch to know it,” Loftus said.
Loftus, now the director of the BB&T Center for Economic and Community Development in Myrtle Beach, said he first met Sponseller when Loftus moved to Myrtle Beach in 1972 to work in the hotel business. Over the years as the careers of both men developed, Sponseller remained a friend and colleague, Loftus said.
Loftus said that while he served as chairman for the state’s hospitality association in the mid-1990s, Sponseller helped to bring together the S.C. Hotel Motel Association and the S.C. Restaurant Association – then separate groups.
“We were duplicating efforts,” he said. “We were both in the same business, and it became obvious that we could achieve far more together than we could apart. I don’t know that anyone but Tom deserves the credit for that.”
As Sponseller’s reputation as the go-to person in the hospitality industry grew, many would turn to him in what would become some of the industry’s darkest days.
“In the tragic aftermath of 9/11, our particular industry took a major slump,” said John Durst, former director of the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism. “There was, understandably, a lot of concern over how tourism was going to fare, but Tom really helped to rally the industry.”
Durst said that in addition to developing a plan to help industry partners weather the storm, Sponseller borrowed ideas from the National Restaurant Association’s marketing campaign called, “We’re Glad You’re Here.” Sponseller, Durst said, helped craft a similar effort to help South Carolina demonstrate to the nation it was still a viable place for tourism.
“We bounced back quite well, and a lot of that is due to Tom’s leadership, his vision and his experience,” Durst said.
Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, praised Sponseller’s leadership skills as well as his prowess in working with legislators.
“Tom has been part of the State House family for 20 years,” Lourie said. “He’s always one of the people who you see when you go up the steps.”
As a lobbyist, Lourie said, Sponseller always arms himself with knowledge about every angle of an issue.
“Members of the hospitality association will tell you they have a great champion of their industry in Tom Sponseller,” Lourie said.
Lourie said he and many others in the Legislature have been “bewildered” at the news of Sponseller’s disappearance. On Tuesday, Lourie requested a moment of silence on the Senate floor for Sponseller and his family.
“Everyone is wondering what has happened,” he said. “We are worried about him.”
Sponseller was last seen by a co-worker around noon on Feb. 18, a Saturday, in the Hospitality Association’s 12th-floor Lady Street office.
As the week progressed, news developed of an ongoing federal investigation into missing money at the Hospitality Association. Multiple law enforcement officials told The State newspaper that another employee at the association is a “person of interest” in connection the missing money.
The police department has not drawn links between the missing money and the missing man.
Lourie said he is cautioning people to withhold judgment.
In the meantime, he said he is hoping and praying for his friend’s safety.
“And we are praying for his family.”