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John B. Spriggle, aided handicapped kids

JOHN Blair Spriggle was not about to let total deafness keep him from having a productive, creative and happy life.

JOHN Blair Spriggle was not about to let total deafness keep him from having a productive, creative and happy life.

He was a skilled craftsman, fashioning braces and other devices for handicapped children, an outstanding athlete, a deep-sea fisherman and a man who enjoyed the company of both hearing and nonhearing friends.

He died May 29 of late stage dementia. He was 84.

Back in the '50s, he apprenticed himself to George E. Johnstone, head brace-maker for the Widener School for Handicapped Children in Philadelphia. Johnstone wanted to retire after 35 years, and officials were worried about finding a replacement for the highly skilled and demanding job.

John had studied shoe repair at the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf, from which he had graduated, and he thought he could handle the job at Widener.

When Johnstone left, he made it clear that John could do the work, but shool district officials weren't sure that a handicapped person was right for the job.

It took a little persuading, but eventually, John overcame all doubts, and he was given the job permanently.

For more than 50 years, John labored to help the handicapped children of Widener walk and enjoy life despite their disabilities.

He worked with physical and occupational therapists to ensure that the prescription braces of some 400 growing children were always just right.

He had to be a cobbler, a metalworker, a welder and a leather craftsman. One talent he didn't have to study was compassion. He really loved the children and they knew it.

John had a great sense of humor, and if he had trouble communicating with the children, he used pantomime, which was sure to get the kids giggling.

"He always had a joke," said his niece, Donna Schack. "He was a happy man."

As the years passed, John trained others to repair, fit and adjust the braces, passing on the knowledge he had acquired through hard work and study.

John was born in Philadelphia to Jack and Ella Spriggle. He was born deaf and was enrolled in the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf at an early age. He later learned to read lips.

He played basketball at the school, and in later years played in semi-pro leagues. He played for a time with the former Silent Athletic Club, but also with both hearing and nonhearing players.

John was a passionate deep-sea fisherman, taking boats out of South Jersey.

"He had so many pictures of himself with groups of guys on the boats," his niece said, "and pictures of him cleaning the fish and cooking them.

"He was extremely likable, a pleasant, fun man."

Donna recalled that when she was a child, she learned to understand what her uncle was saying, even though it was difficult for a man who had never heard the spoken word to form words himself.

"If you wanted to understand him, you could," Donna said.

"He had many wide interests and many friends. He had a wonderful life."

In the late '50s, John went to a house in Philadelphia to ask about renting a room. The door was opened by Joan Minter, whose younger sister, Gina, was a student at Widener.

They fell in love and were married in 1958. She died in 1989 in the same month and on the same day as John did 19 years later.

In 1989, John received a plaque from the Pennsylvania State Senate, honoring his years of work helping handicapped children.

He is survived by two other nieces, Shirley Spriggle and Karen Haley, and a nephew, Richard Spriggle.

Services: 11:30 a.m. June 20 at Westminster Cemetery, Belmont Avenue and Levering Mill Road, Bala Cynwyd.

In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to Inglis House, 2600 Belmont Ave., Philadelphia 19131. *