A Tribute Carved In Stone

A Tribute Carved In Stone
Drake Witham, Journal-Bulletin Staff Writer
Providence Journal-Bulletin
Section C: Newspapers & Newswires, p. 1
02-20-1998

Karin Sprague of Scituate has put her artistic talents to use creating a lasting monument to her late father-in-law: a headstone for his grave.

It was on Block Island where Karin Sprague took long walks with Francis Sprague, her father-in-law.

A quiet man, he pointed out the house where his mother grew up, the field that his father used to hoe and shared stories with her about the summers he spent on the island.

"I don't know if I drew him out, but he just opened up to me. It was like a history lesson," Sprague said. "And he took a general interest in what I was doing."

When she started dating Francis's son, Scott, she was a construction worker by day and a bartender at night. But in her walks with Francis she would tell him about pushing away splinters of wood with a gauge and fine-tuning letters with a chisel. She told him of her passion for wood carving.

Scott and Karin were married in 1988 and eventually moved to a house in Harrisville. They visited his parents on Block Island frequently, bringing their three children and walking the island.

In May 1996, she received a call at home telling her that Francis had died while vacationing in Virginia.

"He said it was bad news but it was not what I was expecting," Karin said. "Scott was at choir practice. I went and got him and told him he had to come home."

The void created by her father-in-law's death brought on a desire to do something to show her love and appreciation for Francis. She wanted to carve his gravestone.

Growing up in Meriden, Conn., Sprague was always talented artistically.

Her knack for drawing perfect letters had fifth-grade teachers accusing her of using stencils on class projects. While the other girls in her Girl Scout troop were struggling to carve forms out of bars of soap, Sprague neatly shaped a bunny.

She channeled her artistic abilities into photography, attending Paier College of Art in Hamden, Conn., but withdrew after a year and a half. She planned to spend the winter on Block Island but ended up staying for four years.

She took many photographs during those years, but her interest in carving was growing. She signed up for a wood-carving class and was a natural with her old standby, lettering.

She met Scott when he walked into the bar for a drink one night, and would see him on the small island during the day.

"I'd be on the roof with a tool belt and he'd come by to install the phone lines," said Karin, a blush rising. "I still have that tool belt."

It was during this time she struck up her relationship with Francis Sprague and Terry, his wife, who would come by the bar for a drink.

Karin and Scott moved to Narragansett in 1989, and Karin went to work at Bentsen Signs in East Greenwich . Under the guidance of Paul Bentsen, she developed into a first-rate letter carver.

"I was thrilled just to be in a woodshop," she said.

But it got to the point where she could "carve letters with my eyes closed," so when the couple moved to Burrillville in 1990, she began learning about 18th-century carving.

Driving through the rural areas in the northwest corner of the state, she would often pull over and walk into the woods, examining the lettering on old gravestones.

"If the weather is good you can see the old headstones clear through the woods," she said. "I'll take the kids with me and hot chocolate and look at the designs. The old stones tell a story."

Where others see markers for the deceased, Sprague sees markings that "are so alive."

"My interest really exploded when Scott's dad died," she said.

She took notes on the elaborate "I's" and the carefully carved willow trees. And six months after Francis died, she broached the idea of carving his gravestone with his widow.

She showed Terry pictures of old gravestones, drawings of what she wanted to do, and walked through the old cemetery on Block Island with her.

"I just fell in love with the idea that she came up with," Terry said. "He adored her, and everything she's done has been from the love in her heart."

Sprague got to work, calling quarries all over the country for slate samples, copying designs with crayon and paper from gravestones and consulting with Terry on the wording.

"One day an 18-wheeler pulled up with a slab of slate and the guy said, 'Where do you want it,' " Sprague said.

She set the slab on a huge wooden easel with steel supports and a chain that allows her to lower the heavy stone with one finger. Then she went to work in the shed behind her house.

Her wood carvings adorn the walls, with aphorisms, pieces of poetry and pictures of her carving mentors.

Soft sounds come from the radio as she dips her chisel in a bucket of water and drags it across a sharpening stone.

To produce the hairline beginnings of a letter or the fine feathers of the dove that sits atop the headstone, the chisel has to be sharp. It's nearly finished now - Sprague has only to touch up the ribbon to bring it to life.

She insists that she's a mother first: Last week's carving sessions were put on hold while she cared for her three children, stricken with chicken pox. But her hobby pays for itself.

She has carved several signs in Burrillville, including the Jesse M. Smith Memorial Library sign, and already has an order for another gravestone, but she's focusing on getting Francis's headstone in place by May 8, the second anniversary of his death.

Terry, who has seen the final words, "a kind and gentle spirit," etched, can hardly wait.

"I know he would be very pleased."

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© 1998 Providence Journal Company