'Angel' among the inmates Volunteer: For 25 years, William Spangler has counseled and comforted inmates at the Maryland Correctional Institution at Hagerstown. One prisoner calls him "a ministering angel."

May 07, 1997|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,SUN STAFF

Warden Lloyd Waters figures the president's recent summit on volunteers was nice, but the Maryland Correctional Institution at Hagerstown (MCIH) has the real stuff -- William Spangler, 80.

"He's volunteered here for 25 years, before it was in vogue," said the warden.

Spangler, of Smithsburg, devotes 30 to 50 hours a week six days a week at the prison and three other nearby jails. He counsels the inmates and their keepers. He reads to the illiterate. His wife, Elsie, 78, writes their letters. He conducts six weekly Bible classes. He comforts inmates and their families. He assists friends who were prisoners.

"A man with kind words for everyone: people with behavior difficulties psychological problems the sick the dying the people who work here," said Waters. "He's a big dad, a trouble-shooter."

Spangler retired a decade ago from his paying jobs after 50 hot years under a welder's hood. "It was a struggle," he said. He helped build airplanes at Fairchild Corp. and ships at Bethlehem Steel Corp. in Baltimore, fixed high-pressure pipes all over Maryland and owned two farms.

"I've never been so happy as now," he said.

To many of the 600 employees and 1,860 inmates at MCIH, the Seventh-day Adventist elder is as familiar as the warden. He is known as Reverend Spangler, Mr. Bill, Brother Bill, Brother Spangler or Just Plain Bill. He has a seventh-grade education, a commitment to the Bible and a refusal to suggest hell for sinners.

Roderick Cravens, an inmate serving 54 years, said Spangler stands in a unique niche.

"There are certain times in prison when you need to talk with someone, but a paid counselor, another inmate, an officer won't do," Cravens said. "So I'll tell an officer I need Reverend Spangler. We sit down, and I don't fear being judged. I can talk with him."

One reason for Spangler's popularity is that he doesn't ask an inmate why he's in prison. Spangler said he doesn't want to know, though he can guess that many of their crimes were violent offenses such as rape, armed robbery and murder.

"I don't judge them," he said, "and I don't have to look over my shoulder or worry about who's behind me. I don't know. Anyway, I love these men. They inspire me. I know of only one person who's conned me, someone I loaned money to when he got out."

Cravens met Spangler after the inmate's stepfather died. "I had held everything in," Cravens said. "I passed out, and they took me to the hospital. They said, 'You want to see Reverend Spangler?' I said, 'Who's he?'

"He came, told me how he lost his son, [told] me to trust in God and I wasn't alone. We talked and prayed together. Later I went to his Bible service. That October he baptized me." (Cravens' baptism was one of 18 that Spangler has performed in prison.)

The death in a traffic accident Feb. 5, 1973, of William M. Spangler Jr., 34, married with four children, left William M. and Elsie E. Spangler with seven surviving children. They have 32 grandchildren and 39 great-grandchildren. The couple also raised six foster children.

The accident galvanized the elder Spangler. He had volunteered occasionally at MCIH, a few miles from the Spanglers' home on South Mountain overlooking the Hagerstown valley. The prisoners and guards became his mission while he remained a welder for another dozen years.

"I realized people are more important than anything. Helping people is what I live for. Of course, God does the good deeds, not me.I always had a feeling [the people in the prison] needed help."

An inmate serving a life term, Douglas Scott Arey, nominated Spangler this year for a state volunteer award with an essay titled "A Ministering Angel." It began this way:

"I know an eighty-year-old gentleman, a public safety volunteer with a record 25 years of generosity and kindness, who is respected for humility, modesty and a never-ending reminder that no one should praise him for his works. He's dispensed folk wisdom to, draped his arms around, and been on his knees in prayer with everyone from the neediest prisoner in Segregation Unit to nurses, correctional officers, sergeants, lieutenants, captains, majors and even Warden Lloyd Waters."

Spangler became one of 32 people Gov. Parris N. Glendening honored last month.

Spangler also volunteers at two other medium security facilities in the Hagerstown prison complex six miles south of Hagerstown -- the Maryland Correctional Training Center and Roxbury Correctional Institution -- and the Washington County Detention Center near Hagerstown.

MCIH inmate Warren Gregg, who is serving 23 years, and others are friendly enough with Spangler to kid him. Gregg reminded the deeply religious man of the time an inmate who had lost the use of his legs had a spasm, causing his body to shake. "Brother Spangler screamed, 'Oh, my God, it's a miracle, it's a miracle,' " Gregg said. "We told him, 'No, Brother Spangler, it's a spasm.' "

Arey said, "He's a rascal. He always makes everyone feel he's got all the time in the world for them, but he's also checking his watchbecause he has to see so many people."

Inmate Kevin Ware, serving 23 years, said he prays with Just Plain Bill regularly. "He always has time. I can truly say I love this man," said Ware.

Some thankful prisoners keep in touch with the Spanglers when they leave prison: a cook in a Hagerstown restaurant, a physical therapist in Ohio, a baker in Smithsburg, the music director of a Baltimore church.

"Look at this," Elsie Spangler said of a gift from one former convict. "A $217 check March 16. A man in Silver Spring sends us these checks for hundreds of dollars. We buy $5 Bibles for the inmates."

Some people ask William Spangler how, day after day, he can visit "such people there."

He answers, "What did Jesus dobut seek out and save the lost. These people are surely lost. Jesus had the caring spirit. We need the caring spirit."

Pub Date: 5/07/97

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