What happens when world events interrupt scholastic achievement? Severe disruptions such as COVID-19 are rare, but not unprecedented.
An American boy named Felix Sparks, born Aug. 2, 1917, was a superb sportsman and student at his Miami, Arizona, high school when the Great Depression hit. His copper mining town got crushed. There were no jobs.
Felix’s parents could barely feed his four younger siblings. Felix was lovingly sent packing to a better-off uncle near Phoenix. Felix returned when there was more food and finished as valedictorian of his 1935 Miami High class. There were still no jobs and zero money for college.
Felix ended up on hobo trains, searching for non-existent jobs, and finally, homeless on the streets of San Francisco. An Army recruiter enticed Felix with the promise of three meals a day.
Young Felix got what he needed from the Army. Assigned to an artillery unit based in Pearl Harbor, Felix was rapidly promoted and saved enough money to begin his dream of college and law school.
In 1938, Felix started the University of Arizona while in the Army Reserves. Uncle Sam called Felix back in December 1940; this time as a second lieutenant. The world was getting dangerous with Hitler’s rise to power.
Meanwhile, a German boy named Henry Gunderheimer, born June 30, 1924, was a superb student and sprinter in Munich. Henry’s parents had a coffee and tea import-export business which thrived until Hitler was named chancellor on Jan. 30, 1933. Life changed because the Gunderheimers were Jewish.
Henry’s family felt doomed. An exodus from Germany was planned. The Gunderheimers would go on a normal Christmas skiing trip to St. Moritz, Switzerland. It was a four-hour drive for a modern Munich skiing family. Only this time, they would never come back.
By early 1939, Henry’s immediate family had escaped Europe. The Gunderheimers were allowed into America only because Henry had prosperous American cousins who sponsored their entry.
At his first opportunity, Henry joined the U.S. Army to go back and fight the Nazis. Henry Gunders (the name got Americanized) joined the Army’s famed 10th Mountain Division at Camp Hale, Colorado.
St. Moritz skiing had prepared Henry well. Henry’s ability to speak French and German was another asset that made him an Army communications specialist. The 10th Mountain Division and Corp. Gunders were deployed to defeat the Axis powers still dominating Italy and in early 1944, engaged the enemy at the Battle of Monte Cassino.
Eighty-six miles southwest, Capt. Sparks and his ethnically diverse Thunderbirds were at Anzio, trying desperately to maintain America’s Italian advance. Sparks’ troops suffered enormous casualties. Finally, thanks to the Thunderbirds and the 10th Mountain Division, the Allies broke through the Axis Power’s Gustav Line, and liberated Rome in May 1944.
Sparks’ 45th Infantry Division advanced north, winning brutal battles in France and then Germany before finally arriving at Dachau on the outskirts of Munich. Sparks and his troops liberated Dachau’s infamous Nazi death camp. Sparks harbored lifetime contempt for Nazis and Holocaust deniers.
When World War II ended, Henry Gunders, age 21, returned to America and married his sweetheart, Elaine. Henry attended Boston University on the GI bill and became a super CPA. Price Waterhouse hired Henry and that led to a magnificent business career. Henry Gunders (as you can hear on my podcast at 1:36:53), is still vibrant at age 96.
Felix Sparks met his wife, Mary, at college in Arizona. Both wanted to live in Colorado. Felix went to law school in Boulder. Felix became a lawyer in Delta where he was elected district attorney.
Gov. Big Ed Johnson appointed Felix to the Colorado Supreme Court. Justice Sparks continued to serve in the Colorado Army National Guard, and, between 1968 and 1979, he served as its commander, retiring with the rank of brigadier general.
Accomplished author Alex Kershaw brilliantly chronicled Gen. Sparks’ life in an epic biography titled “The Liberator, One World War II Soldier’s 500-Day Odyssey from the Beaches of Sicily to the Gates of Dachau.” Kershaw’s book’s been turned into an outstanding new Netflix production, but it omits Kershaw’s final chapter titled The Last Battle.
Sparks’ 16-year-old grandson, Lee Pumroy, was murdered by a 15-year-old in a 1993 Thornton drive-by. The Liberator called me, offering to help a gun control organization created by parents of murdered children and me. I had named it PUNCH! – People United – No Children’s Handguns!
We made Felix Sparks our PUNCH! president. Gen. Sparks testified forcefully at the Capitol, vigorously taking on opposition by the NRA. After Colorado’s 1993 special legislative session, children were prohibited from possessing handguns.
America’s greatest generation succeeded despite youthful setbacks. As Henry Gunders recently told me, “Let us never forget hope. I have lived my own life in periods much more dangerous and much less hopeful than what we have now.”
Felix and Henry survived. They achieved their American dreams. May our children please do the same.
Craig Silverman is a former Denver chief deputy DA who also has worked in the media for decades. Craig is columnist at large for The Colorado Sun. He practices law at the Denver law firm of Springer & Steinberg, P.C. and is host of The Craig Silverman Show podcast.