LONDON — Rumor and publicity about the mysterious death of census worker Bill Sparkman have overshadowed a life well-lived as a devoted father who beat cancer while earning a teaching degree, a minister said Monday.
"The cloud of speculation has kind of taken away from an amazing person," the Rev. Wade Arp, pastor of First United Methodist Church, said after a memorial service for Sparkman.
The attention has been driven by reports about the circumstances of Sparkman's death — his nude body was found at a rural Clay County cemetery, the word fed written on his chest, with a rope tied around his neck and attached to a tree.
Sparkman, 51, died of asphyxiation. People visiting the cemetery Sept. 12 found his body.
The Internet has crawled with questions about whether Sparkman, of London, was murdered by someone angry at the federal government or encountered the wrong person in a place with its share of methamphetamine labs and marijuana patches.
However, state police have not ruled whether Sparkman's death was a homicide, accident or suicide.
Capt. Lisa Rudzinski, commander of the state police post handling the case, said that investigators are waiting for the results of some forensics tests and that the investigation is progressing well.
"We have accomplished a lot," Rudzinski said Monday.
About 50 friends gathered Monday evening to remember Sparkman as more than the subject of a sensationalistic news story.
Boy Scout certificates sat on a stand in the sanctuary, a testament to his longtime service as a Scout leader, and a video of photos played on a screen. Several were of Sparkman and his son, Josh, 20, whom he adopted and raised as a single father.
Sparkman grew up in Florida and worked for the Boy Scouts there and in Atlanta before coming to Kentucky with the organization in 1993, Arp said.
He worked as a parent volunteer at his son's elementary school.
When an opening as an instructional assistant came up, Sparkman's intelligence, efficiency and work ethic earned him the job, said Charlene Woods, a teacher at Johnson Elementary.
Sparkman began working part-time for the Census Bureau in 2005, going door-to-door to gather information.
In 2007, he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma. He worked online to get a math teaching degree and finish his student teaching even while undergoing chemotherapy, maintaining an upbeat attitude all the while, Woods said.
She said Sparkman was dedicated to his son and took joy in the simple things. He loved a good meal and a good book, and was fascinated by math puzzles and concepts, she said.
"Bill always had a smile on his face," was the first thing someone said when friends and co-workers learned of his death and gathered at Johnson Elementary, Woods said.
Thomas Mesenbourg, a U.S. Census official, said the job of an interviewer can be difficult, but that Sparkman's persistence and dedication were noteworthy.
And Arp noted that Sparkman touched hundreds of lives in his work as a youth leader and teacher.
One student told him Sparkman was the best math teacher he'd ever had; another said he was fun, Arp said.
Josh Sparkman sat quietly during the service and hugged several people afterward. He was too emotional to talk with reporters, said Gilbert Acciardo Jr., a retired state trooper who worked with Bill Sparkman in an after-school program at Johnson Elementary and helped arrange the memorial.
Josh Sparkman moved back to London after his father's death. He hasn't found a job but is getting support from a memorial fund, Acciardo said.
Josh Sparkman had expressed frustration with the investigation earlier but doesn't feel that way now, Acciardo said.
"I think he understands that investigations have to run their course," Acciardo said.