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Mountain Home Magazine

Time to Sperr

Aug 07, 2014 02:58PM

Nathan Miller

At least once a month, Red Cross volunteers Jean and Andrew L. “Andy” Sperr deliver containers of blood from Rochester to six hospitals, finishing at Arnot-Ogden Medical Center in Elmira. Then the couple makes one more stop before returning home.

Taking Exit 50 off Route I-86 onto Kahler Road, they pull into a peaceful park that is a special place, to them and many others: Sperr Memorial Park in Big Flats.

This is where the youngest of their eleven children, New York State Police Trooper Andrew J. Sperr, was killed in a shootout with two bank robbers on March 1, 2006, a shootout that led to the criminals’ capture. A.J., as he was called, was thirty-three years old and had been a trooper for ten years.

On their visits, the Sperrs typically walk the half-mile trail that encircles a pond; sit on a wooden bench, several of which carry brass markers in memory of other troopers and local officers who have died in the line of duty since A.J.’s death; and stand silently before a memorial at the spot where their son was killed. The memorial bears a likeness of A.J. and a summary of his life, etched into stone.

“Knowing that that’s the exact spot, where his monument is, you remember a lot of things having to do with A.J.,” his mother said recently. “It brings back so many memories. Part of his death is being in sorrow, but it’s also having great memories of him. And I try to think of all the good things that happened to him.

“It’s almost rewarding to sit there and think about what his life was about and what his death is about. It’s a good and a bad experience.”

A welcoming sign that was erected in 2009 also tells something about A.J.’s life—what it was and what it might have been. It contains symbols that represent things he loved: two horses, for the horses that roamed on the eighty-two acres of land he owned; a farm scene with a tractor, for the tractor that he drove as a twelve-year-old working on a neighbor’s farm, and the one that he had only recently purchased; a turkey, a buck, and a fish, representing the hunting and fishing he loved to do with his dad and his brother Bill; ducks on a wooden box, for the duck boxes A.J. loved to build (Andy has placed some of his own duck boxes at the park); a trooper with K-9 Sperr, a police dog named after A.J.; and A.J. with a child, because he loved children.

The park was created in memory of A.J. by people who knew and loved him or simply knew of him. It opened the year he was killed.

“It was A.J.’s sergeant in Horseheads who soon after told me they were planning to dedicate the park on Labor Day, which was less than six months later,” said Andy. “And I thought to myself, ‘You’ve got to be kidding, Trooper. It’s never going to happen.’”

But happen it did. And the park has been growing and improving every year since, thanks to a band of dedicated volunteers and generous individual and corporate donors. Some of the volunteers’ names can be seen on markers indicating flower beds and other areas of the park that they maintain.

Follow the trail and you’ll see those markers and also the remains of the Carley Crooker Tree. The Crookers owned land in the Town of Corning where A.J. Sperr and a friend used to hunt. When it came time to trim some old sugar maple trees, the young hunters spent parts of several days in the field. They cut down part of one tree that had been struck by lightning, just in front of the Crooker home. But Sperr was killed before they could finish the job, and the tree trunk remained. After A.J. died, Jan and Carley Crooker placed a plaque on the tree “in loving memory” of their friend. Later, after they moved, what was left of the tree was taken to the park, where it now rests.

Much of the funding for improvements and maintenance comes from proceeds from the annual Time to Sperr foot races. The sixth annual event—including 10K, 5K, and 3K runs and an 800-meter fun run for children—is scheduled for Saturday, August 23, with a 9 a.m. shotgun start at the park monument. (Register in advance at www.sperrmemorialpark.org or at the park that morning from 7:00 to 8:30 a.m.)

Race organizer Susan Derick of Big Flats said nearly 700 runners took part last year, and the event drew an estimated 1,300 people to the park. The Sperrs are among those who attend the event. Now in their 80s, they live in the Rochester suburb of Greece, where A.J. and his four brothers and six sisters grew up. On their visits to the park, the parents often stop visitors and ask how often they come to the park and what they like to do there: walk the path or fish in the pond or picnic in the pavilion or let their children use the playground?

Early on, a woman who has been dubbed Giggling Granny left a pair of huge eyeglasses at the monument, with a letter that has since been given to the Sperrs. The letter explained that Trooper Sperr had stopped the woman in her car one day as she drove with a friend. She was wearing the big glasses.

“He asked what they were doing, and she said, ‘I think he probably thought we were drinking, but we said, no, we’re not drinking,’” said Jean Sperr, who has since met Giggling Granny. “And they thought he was just a great guy. This happened shortly before he was killed, and she just had a great memory of how he treated her and her friend and wished them a good day and sent them on their way, and they all had a good laugh about it.”

That gave her some comfort, Jean Sperr said.

“It’s a wonderful experience,” she said, “hearing how A.J. touched so many lives.”