On Wednesday, Aug. 22, Bigfork cartoonist, painter and conservationist Elmer Sprunger died. He was 87 years old.
In May, the Independent published a story about Sprunger being the latest of at least 50 people who have filed lawsuits against current and previous owners of the Columbia Falls Aluminum Company plant for knowingly exposing them to asbestos in the workplace.
Sprunger had worked from 1956 to 1971 as a sign painter at the plant. One of his jobs was to paint identification numbers on pots of molten aluminum. To do this, large insulating blankets made of asbestos had to be pulled aside, possibly exposing Sprunger to asbestos dust as he worked.
In May, Sprunger had been recently diagnosed with mesothelioma, a cancer caused by exposure to asbestos. He was optimistic then, telling the Independent it was no immediate threat to his life. But last week doctors discovered that a tumor in his left lung had grown rapidly. Wednesday morning, he was given six months to live. His son, Jerry, saw him off to sleep that night at the Kalispell Regional Medical Center; by the time Jerry got home, a nurse had called to inform him of his father’s death.
Sprunger’s attorney, Jon Heberling, had stopped by the hospital the day before he died, Jerry says.
According to Jerry, his father told the lawyers, “I’m not worried about money for me or anything like that, but I’m concerned about my family.”
“They assured him that the lawsuit will go on should he die,” Jerry told the Independent.
A lawyer with Heberling’s office confirmed that, and said wrongful death charges may also be added to the suit.
Last week, Jerry says, he penned a cartoon for the Bigfork Eagle, as his father had done for 20 years. Jerry plans to carry on the tradition.
His father’s last painting, Jerry says, was of a buck drinking water at a bend in the Swan River, not too far from the scene of Charlie M. Russell’s last painting.