By Debby Woodin
Globe Staff Writer
JOPLIN, Mo. —
James R. Spradling, a Carthage attorney who was noted for his reform of the Missouri Department of Revenue in the 1970s, died at 5:50 a.m. Monday at McCune-Brooks Regional Hospital.
A lifelong resident of Carthage who was known for his devotion to serving the residents of his hometown, Spradling, 74, had been ill since May.
Spradling was best known in the state for his work as an appointee of then-Gov. Christopher “Kit” Bond to stabilize the Revenue Department in 1973, at a time when the department was in tumult because it had been subject to political whim as a patronage system for so long.
Spradling served three years as director, the longest tenure of any department head of the time; the department had 10 directors within 10 years.
After his tenure, he told a state House committee investigating the department’s problems that it needed continuity, and a long-term commitment from the General Assembly and the governor to operate efficiently and as reliably as other state departments. When asked by legislators about the source of low morale within that department, he told them it was low wages.
One of Spradling’s former law partners, retired Circuit Judge L. Thomas Elliston, said Spradling was recognized for the work he did in reforming the Revenue Department.
“Back then, the Revenue Department was not the best thought of in the state,” Elliston said. “It was patronage to the highest order. Jim made it a professional department.”
But, Spradling wanted to return to Carthage and practice law, and he did so, retiring from the state job in 1976. He returned and joined Elliston and the late state Sen. Richard Webster in the practice of law.
He also taught political science at Missouri Southern State University, where Joplin attorney Jane Wyman met him when she was a student there. She later practiced law with him.
“He was so smart,” Wyman said. “He was the best-read person I knew, and he was highly, highly intelligent.
“What I know about him that many people did not know is how generous and compassionate he was in anonymous ways. He did things for people without charge. He did things for people they never knew, and, to me, that was one of the most important things about his character.
“He was very loyal to his friends and family, even to his friends in childhood when their paths crossed.”
Both Wyman and Elliston said that serving the people of Carthage Ñ whether it was as a lawyer, as the municipal judge, or in civic posts as president of the local YMCA and the Carthage Park Board Ñ was his passion.
“He was just a good person, a good man,” said Elliston. “He could have done a lot of things that people thought was more glamorous, but he just wanted to practice law.”
Spradling also was known for his wit.
He ran unsuccessfully in 1978 for magistrate judge and in 1990 for state Senate, and, for all his participation in it, he was quick to lampoon politics. For instance, he once remarked that Missouri had just enough laws to hold its loopholes together.
“He had a sense of humor, and he was sometimes grouchy,” Elliston said. “With his dry, subtle sense of humor, some people sometimes didn’t know the difference. But he was brilliant.”
Spradling is survived by his wife and two children.
Services will be at 11 a.m. Thursday at Grace Episcopal Church in Carthage, under the direction of Knell Mortuary.