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TCL > October 1998 Issue > An Oral History: Felix L. Sparks

October 1998       Vol. 27, No. 10       Page  51

An Oral History: Felix L. Sparks
by William C. McClearn

This is the fifteenth in a series of articles on distinguished Colorado lawyers that will be printed in The Colorado Lawyer, based on interviews by members of the Colorado Bar Association Centennial Committee. The project is part of the CBA's 100th anniversary celebration, and is an effort to capture our history. This interview was conducted by Denver attorney William McClearn. An edited transcript of the interview follows.


Q: Judge, you've had a remarkable career, one which includes being a justice on the Colorado Supreme Court, twenty years as director of the state Water Board, and military service where you and your troops opened the Dachau concentration camp. Later you were Commanding General of the Colorado Army National Guard. Obviously, we'll only be able to hit the high points. Tell me a little about your family background.

A: I was born in San Antonio, Texas, August 2, 1917, during World War I. My father was a railroader, then he worked for a copper mining company in Miami, Arizona. I was a freshman in high school when the Great Depression hit and the mines closed in 1931.

Q: What did you do after high school?

A: As the oldest of five children, I felt like I was another mouth to feed so I left home and had some wild idea about getting a job on a ship. I got started riding the railway--they used to call it "riding the rods." In those days, thousands of men were looking for jobs. The railways were fairly lenient about allowing men to climb on a boxcar, although you would run into a mean brakeman once in a while who would kick you off. I decided to go to Texas, where I had some relatives. It took me several days riding boxcars to get to Corpus Christi. My father had borrowed $18 and gave it to me. You could get by very cheaply. You could get hotcakes for a dime. At lunch, I ate candy bars--you could get them for a nickel. I slept in parks. When I finally made it to Corpus Christi, I saw lines of men at a hiring hall down at the docks; there was no way I could get a job.

Q: You were 18?

A: Yes. I decided to try the West Coast and ended up in San Francisco. But you couldn't get a job there without joining the union and I didn't have the $15 to join. I went dead broke. I was sleeping in a park and pretty discouraged. I walked down Market Street and thought, "What am I going to do now?" Some recruiting sergeant from the Army came walking down the sidewalk. He said, "Hey, buddy, do you want to join the Army?" Well, I didn'tanswer--I went on by. Then I thought: "What else have I got to do?" So I turned around and said, "Yes, I do."

Q: What was the Army like then?

A: It had almost gone out of existence after World War I and there was an attempt to start building it up some during the Depression years. They gave me a choice of various places. I decided I would take the Coast Artillery and go to Hawaii.

Q: Smart choice.

A: I was assigned to an artillery battery at Fort Kamehameha at Pearl Harbor. After recruit training, I became a battery clerk, because I could write well. I was soon promoted to corporal, so I was making $42 a month.

Q: Rich.

A: Big money. That was important because my goal was to go to college and be a lawyer. But after awhile I could see I was getting nowhere. I was frantic trying to figure out how to make some money. One day I bought a camera for $2 from a soldier. But I discovered there was no place to develop film on the post. Two or three guys on the post were developing pictures in the latrines at night, but the quality was lousy. One day I said to the battery commander, "Captain, I'm an expert photographer. But I notice they don't have a photography shop on this post." I told him I could make some money for the post exchange and for myself if I could have a photography shop. Of course, I was no expert and had never developed any film in my life. They agreed to set me up, so I studied some books and figured out how to do it. I charged 50 cents--it cost me 10 cents for developing the roll and a nickel a print (the old Brownies had eight pictures on a roll). It took me five minutes to develop it. I made a huge profit. Soon I had three guys working for me, and I was making more money than the battery commander.

Q: So you're rich. Then what?

A: When my two years were up, I sold the business to the soldiers working for me, came home, and enrolled at the University of Arizona. At that time, without any college degree, you could get a law degree in five years--two years pre-legal and three years legal. Things were happening in the world at that time. Japan was on the prowl; so were Mussolini and a few other people--Hitler. I had an uneasy feeling we were going to be in a war, so I took ROTC and got a commission as a Second Lieutenant. I completed my first two years, and had just about completed the first semester of law school when I got a notice to report to the Army. In those days there were no exemptions.

Q: When did you get married?

A: In June 1941. Mary Frances Blair was in my freshman class at the University of Arizona and her father was a campus cop. We've now been married 57 years.

Q: I know from your biography [Sparks by Emajean Jordan Beuchner (Metairie, LA:Thunderbird Press, Inc., 1991)] that from 1941 to 1943 you were in the United States doing infantry training. I'm going to push through that and ask you about going overseas in 1943. You first went to North Africa. Later you were part of the invasion of Italy, when you were wounded.

A: We invaded Italy in September 1943, and I was wounded in October. They classified me as unfit for further combat duty. I disagreed. I was assigned to a job training troops in North Africa--in Algeria. I hated that assignment. One day I decided I'm not going to take this anymore. I went out to the airfield and found a B-17 that was headed back to Italy. I hitchhiked and got picked up by an Army truck--the driver turned out to be Shorty Suarez from my hometown in Arizona. He said he'd take me wherever I wanted to go. We went to Division Headquarters. I took over my old company and the next day I was back on the line. I was listed as AWOL--but they finally got that settled. I was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel in 1944 and was a battalion commander.

Q: How many men were under your command?

A: About 1,000.

Q: And you were how old?

A: Twenty-six.

Q: Tell me about the liberation of Dachau in April 1945.

A: Well, the war was drawing to an end and the German forces were badly disorganized. We were driving to capture Munich because it was the center of their communications and supply. I was the commander of a task force and given extra troops. Our orders were to go as rapidly as possible toward Munich. The Germans did have a pretty fair defensive line. But I figured I would be in Munich by nightfall. Then I got an order on the radio: "Proceed immediately to the concentration camp at Dachau; seize it, seal it off, and let no one in or out." I had never heard of concentration camps. The American soldiers were in total ignorance. I looked on my map and saw it was maybe a mile to my left.

Q: What happened when you got there?

A: When we got close to the camp, the first thing we saw was a string of 39 railway cars, all filled with human bodies. All dead. I think there were about 2,000 dead bodies. This stunned us. The men were looking pretty mad. They were hardened combat veterans. They didn't say much but there was a lot of cursing--quite a bit of silence--and some men started crying. Finally, I said to the company commander, "Okay, move!"

There was a big locked gate. One of the men shot the lock off with his rifle and we went in. I followed the right platoon and we climbed a wall about eight feet high. I found myself in the back yard of a beautiful home. I immediately knew they were SS officers' homes. Inside it looked like a normal military post--almost like a German village--lawns and flowers. The homes were well furnished. I went in the back door of one and could see children's toys on the floor. I knew that most of the officers had fled before we arrived.

In the meantime, we found a huge area with several hundred buildings, barracks and storage, and maintenance shops. The prison area was in the far corner of the camp. We didn't see that until the last thing.

Q: Was there any resistance as you went through the camp?

A: No. My men claimed that they had been fired on, but I doubt it. I don't think the German guards put up any resistance at all. That's my opinion because I didn't have any casualties. All the shooting, I was certain, was done by my men. They eliminated a few guards. There were also a lot of very vicious guard dogs--they shot all of them. They pretty well got out of hand, the men did. They were for killing every German they came across. I've got books that say we killed 500. We did a body count and the actual number was 30.

"The scene near the entrance to the confinement area numbed my senses. Dante's Inferno seemed pale compared to the real hell of Dachau. A row of small cement structures near the prison entrance contained a coal-fired crematorium, a gas chamber, and rooms piled high with naked and emaciated human corpses. . . . I saw a large number of dead inmates lying where they had fallen in the last few hours or days before our arrival. Since all the many bodies were in various states of decomposition, the stench of death was overpowering." [Beuchner at 142.]

Q: What happened when your men approached the concentration area?

A: We didn't see it until we actually got to the barbed wire fence. It was very quiet. Nothing. The prisoners had sort of an intelligence system. They knew that Himmler had issued orders a couple weeks before that that no prisoners were to fall into Allied hands. At first, when we got in and saw what was going on, many of our men became distraught. Some cried, while others raged. Some 30 minutes passed before I could restore order and discipline. During that time, the camp prisoners were huddled in those barracks. They were watching out the windows and saw my men shooting some guards and suddenly it dawned on them that somebody was there to get them out. They came pouring out of the barracks--thousands of them, screaming in unison.

As it turned out, there were about 32,000 still alive in maybe a quarter of a mile square. The barracks were constructed to hold about 250 people. When we got there they had over 1,500 crammed into each one. Sanitation, of course, was non-existent. Almost every one of them had acute dysentery. Lots of them died due to dysentery.

At one point, I suddenly saw bodies being tossed in the air over the hands of these prisoners. The crowds were tearing them apart with their bare hands. I told my interpreter to find out what was going on. He came back and said, "They're killing the informers." I later found out that the informants were called Capos, and for the most part they were German. In the last year of the war the Germans put a lot of Germans in there--German criminals--or people that they said were. There was a small underground of resisters in the Munich area; when they caught those people, if they didn't execute them immediately, they put them in a camp and then they put them in charge of each of the barracks. They had life or death authority. If they reported some prisoner for any little infraction, they were usually tortured--horribly tortured--hung up by their thumbs, or in many cases they were just hanged. The prisoners hated those people so they killed every damn one of them.

Q: What did you do to secure the prisoners?

A: My orders, of course, were not to let anyone in or out. All of them were in pretty bad shape. Lot of endemic disease--half of them had typhus; all had acute dysentery. Many of them pneumonia. Hardly any of them weighed more than 80 or 90 pounds. They were just skin and bones.

Q: How long were you there?

A: Three days. The hospitals took over the care and feeding of the prisoners. We had no real duty there except to keep them in. Of course, they all wanted to get out desperately--desperately. I got some of their leaders to come to the fence and through my interpreter I explained to them that they had to stay there, that we were going to get food, clothing. They didn't really try to get out after that. They were very calm and just stood around--the ones that could stand. Several hundred dead bodies were on the ground inside the prison camp that they hadn't had time to cart out before we got there.

Q: Before I leave your World War II military career, I want to list some of the awards you received: two Purple Hearts, two Silver Stars, Legion of Merit, the Combat Infantry Badge, Commendation Medal, eight battle stars on your European/ African Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, the Croix de Guerre with the Silver Gilt Star and others--truly a distinguished career. Let's now go to how you became a lawyer and ended up at the University of Colorado.

A: In August 1945, I got shipped back to the States to Fort Bliss, Texas. The day I got back to Fort Bliss happened to be VJ Day. They had a wild celebration in El Paso. Everything was closed and everybody was celebrating, getting drunk. I wanted to get out of the Army as fast as I could. I got my ninety-day leave and met my family. I had a son that was a little over two years old I had never seen. When my discharge came through, I wanted to go back to law school immediately.

I thought of Colorado, although I had never been there. I called the registrar and found out I could start immediately. The University was building like crazy, what they called "Vetsville," down by Boulder Creek. They were throwing up a bunch of trailers. It was pretty primitive; there was one common bathroom facility for ten trailers. Every ten or twelve trailers had a faucet. The trailers had kerosene stoves. You had to haul water from a faucet in the house, and you had a common toilet and shower facility for every 15 or 20 trailers, something like that. It really wasn't bad at all.

Q: How long did that last?

A: After a year they put up Quonset huts. We had our own little Vet's council. People who had kids could get a Quonset hut. If you didn't have any kids, no Quonset hut. They were double Quonset huts--a family on one side and a family on the other--little old partition down the middle. But they had toilet facilities and water.

Q: Didn't have to go outside to get your water.

A: We thought that's hog heaven.

Q: You decided to stay in Colorado?

A: I had gotten tangled up. Right after I started law school, the Army went on a mad push to get the National Guard going again. The Army was losing people like crazy. I got a call from Governor John Vivian, and he asked me to reorganize the National Guard. I told him I was in law school, but he said they wanted to put me back on active duty to travel around the state and get the units organized again. I went to Dean Ed King and said, "You know, I'd really like to do it; it's going to take two months, but I hate to miss law school." He said: "You're a good student. Just take the final exam. You pass, you pass."

I called the Governor back and told him okay. They gave me a military car and I traveled the state--Cortez to Craig, Sterling, and surrounding that. I had to find soldiers who wanted to get back in the Army, but nobody wanted to get back, I'll tell you that.

Q: I take it you passed your final exams?

A: Yes.

Q: When did you get out of law school?

A: We all finished in December 1947. I took the bar exam, and in the two months before I got my grades, I organized the Guard and spent about two months on active duty. One of the major reasons I took the job was to tour the state. I didn't know a damn thing about Colorado. I got to meet with the Chambers of Commerce and prominent people in all these towns.

The little town of Delta somehow or other attracted me. I love fishing and hunting and, boy, that Gunnison River on one side, the Uncompahgre on the other, Grand Mesa. That really attracted me. That was my pick of places to practice. I wanted to be on my own, not with a big firm.

Q: What was practicing law in Delta like then?

A: I arrived in Delta with $800. We got a little old apartment on Main Street for $35 a month. An old doctor who had been in World War I rented me one of his offices for $15 a month. I took whatever came in the door. I bought some old second-hand furniture and a typewriter. My wife was my secretary--what little time she could get from the kids. The other saving grace was that there was a GI bill benefit, and if you went into business by yourself, or if you owned a business, you were guaranteed $200 a month for the first year. Needless to say, I drew that too.

Q: How long did it take you to become District Attorney over there?

A: It was another one of the breaks in life. There was an election in 1948 and Dewey was supposed to sweep everything. I didn't take any part in the caucuses; I had just gotten there. The National Guard asked me to go to Ft. Benning, Ga. to take a course in the use of nuclear weapons. While I was gone, the guy running for district attorney on the Democratic side got cold feet and dropped out of the race. I got back and the lawyer who met me at the airport said, "Guess what? You're running for district attorney."

Q: There was a little surprise.

A: I was really shocked. Hell, I didn't know anybody; I didn't have any money. He said I could withdraw if I wanted, but I got to thinking and decided to take a stab at it. I campaigned to beat hell. Turned out not to be a bad year for Democrats.

Q: So you and Truman got elected?

A: Yes; my salary was $6,000 a year, but I could practice law and I got about $300 a month in office expenses. There was no office for the district attorney in Delta or anywhere in the district. I just worked out of my regular office. I had a deputy in each county. I served the four-year term and spent about half the time as D.A.

Q: What kind of work did you do in private practice?

A: I was specializing in water law and just a regular old general practice. And a hell of a lot of income tax work.

Q: What happened at the end of your term--did you run again?

A: Yes. I ran again and I ran into Eisenhower. I got beat.

Q: How did you come to be appointed to the Colorado Supreme Court?

A: I got a call one day from a reporter at the Rocky Mountain News. He said: "Judge, how do you feel about being appointed?" I didn't know what the hell he was talking about it. I thought he had the wrong person. "No," he said, "The governor just appointed you to the Supreme Court." Justice Clark from Glenwood Springs had died. He had a year and a half or two years to go on his term and I was appointed.

Q: So you made a phone call?

A: I called Gov. Ed Johnson. I didn't know him. I asked him what was going on and why wasn't I consulted. He said, "I thought my people got ahold of you." I told him I was happy in Delta and the appointment would mean I'd have to move. He said, "Come over and talk to me." The next day I flew over and met with him. He apologized for not consulting me.

Q: Tell me about your years on the court.

A: Let me tell you that I was very disappointed. I was still pretty young, about 35, and had had a world of experience in my brief years. But I was extremely disappointed. Matter of fact I was quite bitter about it before I was through. I've never told anyone. I don't know whether I should now. There were some rotten things that went on in that court--very rotten. I found myself at odds. I didn't like the way they conducted business at all. There was one marvelous man on the court, Otto Moore, and Leonard Sutton was a good man.

Q: How long did you serve?

A: I just filled out the unexpired term and I hated every minute of it. I hated it.

Q: That was before judges were appointed, so it was by partisan election, wasn't it?

A: Very partisan election. If anybody was ever for the Missouri system that was voted in in 1966, it was me.

Q: Give us an example of something that happened.

A: I got my first shock the first day I was on the court. I was just sworn in. All the judges were there, and Chief Judge Wilbur Alter announced, "Judge Sparks, I'm appointing you to the admissions committee." I wondered what the hell the admissions committee was. I went to back my office and Judge Holland came in with a stack of papers. He said, "Here, judge." That's another thing that got me; everything was very formal. "Sign these. I've checked them over and they're all right," he said. I told him I wanted to look at them first. He said there was no need to, but he said he'd come back. I started going through them and realized it was the bar admission for two guys who had failed the bar exam three times. The rules said if you flunk it twice, you had to go back to law school for a semester. I talked to my secretary (she had been Justice Clark's secretary). She laughed and said, "Well, after you people make the rules, you can do whatever you want to with them." I said, "I don't like it; I can't sign these. What about all the students that flunk and aren't admitted?" She said: "Judge Holland is going to be very angry with you." When he came back I said: "These guys flunked the bar three times. How can they be admitted?" He said, "Judge, you don't understand. They're Democratic captains and you'll need them for the election." I would not sign and they weren't admitted. He never forgave me.

Q: What did you do after you left the court?

A: I went on back to Delta and I was perfectly happy practicing law.

Q: How did you get appointed to the Colorado Water Board?

A: Well, the board was very big and unwieldy. There was a bitter fight going on between the Eastern and Western Slopes over the Frying Pan-Arkansas project. Governor McNichols asked me to be the attorney and find out why the board wasn't functioning. I investigated, and finally told him the whole thing had to be reshaped. It needed a staff, some money. We did have some influence in Congress. We had Wayne Aspinall and Gordon Allott. Allott was on both the Appropriations and Interior Committees in the Senate. Aspinall ran the Interior Committee in the House with an iron hand. We could get any legislation we wanted. At some point, McNichols asked me to be the director. I did that for almost twenty years, until I retired in 1979.

Q: What does the State Water Board do?

A: It's to develop state water resources and handle all interstate negotiations. For instance, we set the water policy with the federal government. We have a say on anything to develop out of the Colorado River, California, Arizona, Nevada. We were in the best position of almost any state because of Wayne Aspinall. No state could get anything through without our permission. I hated to see Allott and Aspinall go. Damn voters of this state turned them out. We never have had the force that we had. At that time, we had a lot of power. I was getting $100 million a year for Colorado. I would actually write the laws that I wanted passed and Aspinall and Allott would get them passed. Projects like Curecanti--that's our major storage in Colorado--and the Frying Pan-Arkansas.

Q: We haven't talked about your later experience with the Colorado National Guard.

A: I became the Commanding General of the Colorado Army National Guard when I was 50 and had that position for ten years. I was offered an Adjutant General's job by Johnny Vanderhoof. But that's a full-time job and I was getting ready to retire, so I said no.

Q: Are you glad you became a lawyer?

A: Yes. I don't know what else I could have done as well as I could that. I can't play a musical instrument. Lot of things I can't do, but I'm good with words and good at writing and good at thinking fast on my feet.

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