The old warrior stood silently before the coffin, preparing to say goodbye to a young life, like he had done so many times before. He had planned to speak before the assembled mourners, but the words would not come. Instead, he was overcome with grief. The tears poured forth.
For Blair Sparks, it was tough watching the old man in such pain. His grandfather was a rock, a decorated World War II hero who had fought his way across Europe and later tackled innumerable challenges as a district attorney and Colorado Supreme Court justice. He also served as commander of the Colorado National Guard, rising to the rank of brigadier general. Disciplined, determined and decisive, Felix Sparks did not back down from a fight.
“He was a tough guy,” Blair recalls. “He was never afraid of any kind of battle.”
Decades later, Felix Sparks, then 76, wept uncontrollably as he watched the casket bearing his 16-year-old grandson being lowered into the ground at Crown Hill Cemetery in Wheat Ridge, next to Denver. It was April 2, 1993. Two weeks earlier, his grandson, Lee Pumroy, had been sitting in the back seat of a car when a 9-millimeter bullet shattered the back window and struck him in the head. He died in the arms of his twin brother, Steve.
Before the torrent of tears, Felix Sparks had managed to blurt out these anguished words: “A grandparent should never have to watch his grandson being buried.”
During World War II, Sparks had witnessed many young lives snuffed out in savage, bloody scenes. As an officer in the U.S. Army, countless times he wrote to families — mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters — to let them know their loved ones would not be coming home.
Now, the death of his own grandson had “opened the flood gates,” says author Alex Kershaw, who wrote a biography about Sparks, The Liberator: One World War II Soldier’s 500-Day Odyssey from the Beaches of Sicily to the Gates of Dachau. The book inspired a recent Netflix animated drama miniseries of the same name.
“There was a lot of repressed grief and survivor’s guilt,” Kershaw says. “Not only was this death incredibly personal because it was his grandson, but I think it triggered a lot of memories. He’d seen teenagers dying in the war so many times. There was a connection there.”
For Sparks, his grandson’s death was far more pointless than those he’d seen in combat. There was no declaration of war or rallying cry to preserve freedom from fascism like there had been during World War II. His grandson died as the result of senseless teen violence in a state where a 15-year-old could legally carry a handgun almost anywhere, even into a schoolroom.
Now, with Sparks consumed by grief after burying his mother a few weeks earlier and still recovering from a third heart operation, it looked like he had finally met his match. Broken and bereft, he seemed to teeter on the edge of death himself.
That was not the case though. In the coming weeks, Sparks would rally and began to lay out a battle plan against a determined enemy, the National Rifle Association (NRA). His unique background — veteran, prosecutor, judge, and now, kin to a gun violence victim — meant he knew what needed to be done to implement more sensible gun laws. He resolved to marshal his forces for one last stand.
A letter Sparks wrote to a friend offers insight into his determination in the face of tragedy:
“While the funeral for our beloved grandson is over, the battle has just begun in hopes of sparing others from similar grief and tragedy. It will be my last battle.”
Felix Sparks certainly knew how to fight. Born in 1917, he grew up during the Great Depression and learned about survival at an early age when he had to leave home because there wasn’t enough food for the family. With the promise of three square meals a day and a steady income, Sparks joined the U.S. Army in 1935. At the end of his enlistment, he went to college but also attended officers training camp in the summer, where he was recognized as an outstanding cadet.
The Army called him back to active duty in January 1941, and he became a second lieutenant in the 157th Infantry Regiment of the 45th Infantry Division, a National Guard unit that was mobilized when it became obvious that the U.S. would be drawn into the global conflict.
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Known as the Thunderbird Division, the 45th was the most integrated unit in the war. Prior to 1948, the U.S. military was segregated, with very little contact between different races. But the former Colorado Army National Guard unit was composed of a disparate group of soldiers: Native Americans and Mexican Americans, mixed with a smattering of poor white cowboys.
Lieutenant Sparks was known as fair and open-minded, but he was hard as nails and did not tolerate disobedience. He would not hesitate to chew out his soldiers when they screwed up, nor fail to go to bat for them when unfairly challenged. Sparks won over the men in his command and they, in turn, put their lives on the line for him.
“Sparks made an effort to know who his people were,” Kershaw says. “He knew them all by their first names. He was a really tough bastard and hard-ass, but he was very, very good at creating a bond with his guys.”
Thanks in part to Sparks’s efforts, the Thunderbird Division became a highly decorated and respected combat unit. General George S. Patton called the 45th “one of the best, if not the best division in the history of American arms.”
Sparks survived many close calls. Once, he nearly lost every man in his company during a horrible battle at Anzio, on the coast of Italy. He lasted an amazing 511 days in combat, stretching from the Allied Invasion of Sicily in 1943 to the liberation of Dachau in 1945. He earned the Silver Star and received two Purple Hearts for wounds in battle. One was so severe that he was declared unfit for further combat. That didn’t stop Sparks. He went AWOL, hitched a ride on a bomber and eventually made his way back to his unit to continue fighting with his men.
Sparks’s leadership abilities were soon realized, and he quickly rose through the ranks. By the end of the war, he had been promoted to lieutenant colonel and was commander of the 3rd Battalion of the 157th Regiment.
Like most veterans, Sparks’s combat experience changed him. Watching young men die on the battlefield in terrible ways left an indelible scar. However, nothing impacted Sparks more than seeing thousands of emaciated corpses at Dachau concentration camp. The utter inhumanity was a chilling moment that he would never forget.
Later in life, Kershaw says Sparks would go toe to toe with skinheads and Holocaust deniers, angrily saying, “Don’t tell me! I was there!”
Despite the horrifying scene of Dachau, Sparks never forgot his duty to “bear true faith and allegiance” as an officer of the U.S. Army. When Americans began shooting German soldiers at the camp, he immediately stepped up to stop it. Sparks pulled out his Colt .45, which featured a photo of his wife, Mary, taped to the grip, and began firing it in the air, screaming at his troops to stop. Protecting the values they were fighting for was far more important to him than seeking vengeance in a mob-style attack. In the midst of wanton slaughter, Sparks imposed civil order.
“He went over and kicked the man on the machine gun in the ass and yelled, ‘What the hell are you doing? There will be no more firing here unless I give the order,’” Kershaw says. “He stopped it.”
After the war, Sparks moved to Colorado and raised a family with Mary while going to college and law school. He was elected district attorney in Delta, near Denver, then served on the Colorado Supreme Court. He also served as director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board and helped draft the 1969 Water Rights Determination and Administration Act, which resolved major problems with how water was appropriated across the state and protected water rights for all residents.
“Colorado can never repay Felix for the way he protected Colorado water,” former Gov. Dick Lamm once told The Denver Post. “I think he would have fought a duel to save Colorado water for Coloradans.”
In retirement, Sparks attended Thunderbird Division reunions and reconnected with fellow soldiers. He even started talking with his family about his combat experiences, something he had held inside for nearly 50 years.
Life was good for Felix Sparks. Until that terrible day — March 18, 1993 — when it all came crashing down.
Blair Sparks will never forget his father saying those words. Stunned, bewildered, confused, he had a hard time himself dealing with the loss of his cousin. Everyone in the family was devastated, but none more so than Felix.
“My granddad was torn apart,” Blair recalls. “He had just buried his mother, and he came home to another funeral. He was especially fond of the boys because they were twins.”
Lee and Steve Pumroy had been driving around with friends that evening. They were in the back seat of the car, cruising through Thornton, a city near Denver. Among the passengers was John Vigil, who earlier that day had had an argument with Phillip Trujillo. Both were 16 at the time.
Trujillo had gone home, grabbed a handgun and went looking for Vigil. He spotted his target in the car and let loose a blast from his 9-millimeter semiautomatic pistol. A bloody Lee Pumroy slumped forward in the car and into the grasp of his brother.
Trujillo was sentenced to life in prison without parole. It was small consolation for Sparks. He needed to do something more.
“I’m going to stop this violence,” Blair recalls his grandfather saying. “I’m getting sick of reading about it in the papers. I’m tired of people living in fear.”
Residents of Denver — indeed around the country — were frightened because teen violence was escalating. Young people were dying in droves, many as a result of the availability of handguns. People were angry over the callous taking of life, especially lives so young.
“It got so bad in ’93 that it was called the ‘Summer of Violence,’” recalls Craig Silverman, a Denver attorney who became a Sparks ally. “There were a number of terrible crimes committed, largely by teenagers and often involving guns.”
Silverman, a former deputy district attorney, remembers it all too well. He prosecuted several high-profile cases involving young people killing each other during that time. One involved Danny Akers, who gunned down 15-year-old Theron Hicks on the streets of Denver with a gun that had been a gift from his mother.
“Akers killed Hicks with a MAC-11, an assault weapon, that his mother had gotten him for his 16th birthday because he wanted it,” Silverman says. “She had bought it at a pawn shop and given it to him.”
People were scared, and many wanted change, but Sparks knew that would be difficult. The NRA was a formidable enemy. The gun lobby controlled several elected representatives through political contributions, and public sentiment was also on their side. Carrying a handgun without question had been a public right — even for young people — dating back to the early days of Colorado’s founding in 1876.
“He thought the gun laws in America were crazy,” Kershaw said. “Sparks was totally opposed to people being able to acquire weapons to kill people. He wasn’t against all gun ownership. He wanted sensible gun laws. Kids shouldn’t be able to get a gun and kill other kids.”
Sparks met with Silverman and a group he helped form, PUNCH. People United – No Children’s Handguns consisted of parents who had lost children to this unrestricted warfare. Sparks offered to contribute $50,000 to the cause. “He also said, ‘I want to be the president,’” Silverman remembers. “I really didn’t know who he was at the time. I was familiar with him because he had been a prosecutor like me and had served on the Supreme Court. But I didn’t know about his World War II background.”
Sparks and Silverman began working together on a strategy to change the gun laws in Colorado. Specifically, they wanted to make it illegal for teenagers to have handguns. To do that, Sparks got himself readmitted to the bar in Colorado and began lobbying for legislation.
He also used his influence as a politician and started calling in favors. Sparks got Colorado Gov. Roy Romer to agree to a special legislative session to consider a bill addressing the problem. Sparks’s phone rang off the hook with supporters, and donations flooded in. His efforts to save the lives of young people were even endorsed by 132 men who had served with him in the 157th Regiment in World War II.
“It’s difficult to talk about this but I have to for the other kids,” Sparks told a reporter for the Rocky Mountain News. “It was the other grandson who got me started because he was threatening to get everybody who had anything to do with it. I told him he couldn’t do that and he said: ‘Grandpa, I can get a gun anywhere.’”
The NRA fought back hard with a media blitz, warning that the legislation would make “good kids criminals.” It invested heavily in the Colorado legislature by contributing to the coffers of at least 35 politicians. When the gun group realized that it might not be able to derail the legislation altogether, it tried to negate the bill by proposing changes that would have made any conviction only a misdemeanor.
“The main thing NRA did was pretend they were on our side while undermining the teeth in the bill by making it a petty offense,” Silverman says. “The NRA knew the writing was on the wall after Denver’s Summer of Violence in 1993 and that some law would emerge.”
Sparks, an experienced battlefield commander, knew exactly what his enemy was capable of, and he met them head on with every weapon in his arsenal. He personally lobbied for support in the legislature, receiving backing from members of both parties. On the day of the vote, Sparks organized a rally on the Colorado Capitol steps. Attending was James Brady, the press secretary who had been paralyzed by a gunshot during the assassination attempt on President Reagan in 1981 and later became an activist for gun regulation. The law banning anyone under the age of 18 from carrying a handgun in Colorado passed by a safe margin. It remains on the books today.
“We rolled right over that NRA,” Sparks said. “They never knew what hit them.”
Silverman was more philosophical about how it all played out. While he is proud of the achievement, he recognizes that it can never change what has already happened or remove the pain many people still feel over the loss of a loved one from gun violence.
“There is no justice when your kid gets killed,” he says. “To do something about it, to try to make it so it won’t happen to somebody else, takes incredible courage. To have PUNCH fill this need for those families and for General Sparks and his family, it was a blessing that we could turn that grief into action to help other people.”
The new law had a significant impact in Colorado, especially in the Denver area. Violent crime, in particular crimes involving handguns and teens, dropped, and residents were less fearful of walking the streets, Silverman says.
Of course, the problem of gun violence remains. Colorado knows that all too well.
Six years after Lee Pumroy died, Colorado was struck by a devastating act of carnage. Two teens walked into Columbine High School on April 20, 1999, and killed 12 students and a teacher with shotguns and automatic weapons that were more powerful than what Sparks’s soldiers had used in combat.
Sparks, who died at 90 in 2007, lived to see that tragedy, but not the many others that have come in the years since. In 2012, 24-year-old James Holmes walked into a movie theater in Aurora with semiautomatic weapons. He killed 12 people and wounded 70.
Just this year, Ahmad Al Aliwi Al-Issa allegedly opened fire with a semiautomatic rifle in a Boulder supermarket, killing 10, including a police officer. Only 10 days earlier, a judge had overturned an assault-weapons ban approved by the city’s voters three years ago. The legal action was prompted by a lawsuit filed by the NRA, which argued that state law prohibited local communities from making their own gun laws.
As might be imagined, gun control is a big issue once again in Colorado. A statewide ban on assault weapons is being discussed in the legislature. The effort is being led in part by State Rep. Tom Sullivan, whose son was killed in the Aurora theater, and State Sen. Rhonda Fields, whose son was gunned down for planning to testify at a murder trial. Sparks knew that his efforts would not change everything; they were just a step.
He realized that others would have to be courageous and fight for what they believed in if progress was going to continue — just as he had done in Sicily, Anzio and Dachau, on the water board and on the state supreme court, and when standing up to Holocaust deniers. They would have to show their mettle by facing injustice and affirming their dedication to humanity and freedom.
Blair Sparks, who recently retired as a Denver policeman, heard his grandfather repeat that message many times: The mark you leave in life is based on doing what is right.
“Son, let me tell you something,” he recalls the old warrior saying. “Nobody gives a damn about who you are. It’s what you do in life that counts. That’s how you want to be remembered.”