If he’d been drunk one winter evening six years ago, Dave Sprague might be dead today.
But on that particular day something felt wrong to Sprague. He was an alcoholic at the time, and usually passed out after drinking into the night. Friends visited all the time with booze in hand, so much so his apartment was nicknamed ‘The Drinking Boys’ Place’ by other tenants.
It was January 5, 2011, and Sprague had only had four beers throughout the day when another visitor arrived at 10:30 p.m. with a bottle of rum. But the foreboding feeling stuck with Sprague, and after just one drink he sent the visitor home.
That decision saved his life.
Hours later a fire ignited in the basement of Sprague’s building. The Kerr Apartments, Nelson’s first apartment block, was a month shy of 100 years old at the time. An alarm jarred Sprague as he was settling in to sleep, and at first he thought it had been set off accidentally.
But smoke started choking the air, and Sprague was sober enough to realize the severity of the situation. He escaped, but lost his two cats and most of his possessions in a fire that destroyed the 42-apartment building and displaced about 80 residents.
In the months that followed, Sprague became a voice for victims of the fire. He gave up alcohol, discovered his spiritual side and never looked back.
“It took the Kerr building burning down to change my life,” he says now.
The remains of the Kerr Apartment building in 2011 before it was torn down.
‘He’s an interesting guy’
Sprague leads his first client of the day into the cramped pantry and, like always, starts with the soup. Then it’s onto the canned vegetables, pasta sauce, peanut butter and so on.
“Apples? You want some apples? he says. “Apples are good for you.”
It’s Monday morning at Nelson’s Salvation Army, where Sprague works as the food bank co-ordinator and community liason. There’s a line-up to get in when the doors open, but Sprague seems to know everyone by name. He greets those who need a visit to the pantry, checks them into his computer, and tours them through the shelves.
All the while there’s lots of banter. He asks one man about a leg injury. Another couple who he’s known for a long time gets questions about their new home. Sometimes the conversation turns to drugs, but there’s no judgement in Sprague’s voice. Just a concerned tone, perhaps a little advice, and the moment passes.
Sprague enjoys these conversations. They remind him of the hell he survived, of the person he used to be and the lessons he has to pass on now.
“I got here not on my own steam,” he says. “I’m in this position not by my own works. I was gifted this. I was gifted my sobriety. The walk I have in life today, I walk with God. Because I’m fully aware through a number of circumstances that he’s been active in my life since I quit drinking.”
Sprague isn’t preachy. He doesn’t bring up religion with clients, but it informs a deep concern he conveys for others’ well-being. His physical appearance also doesn’t prevent him from connecting with people. Sprague is 63 years old, with a stern face and a build that appears as though it used to be imposing.
But when he speaks, Sprague sounds like an old buddy who just happens to have something important to say.
Dorian Jones has known Sprague for many years. Jones’s mother works at the Salvation Army, and on this day the 19-year-old is visiting for some food.
“He’s become a super cool and good influence in my life,” says Jones. “Just by talking, or [remembering] the same situations he’s been through as a teenager, or he’s gone through as an adult that I’ve gone through as a teenager and younger. … He’s an interesting guy.”
Val Sherriff, the Salvation Army’s program co-ordinator, met Sprague in the spring of 2012. She remembers him as an intimidating figure at first, but one who was passionate about volunteering.
“I think the biggest thing is he’s walked where they walked,” says Sherriff. “He’s walked a mile in their shoes. He’s lived on both sides of the street. He has walked homeless, being on social assistance, being an alcoholic and a drug addict, so he knows that lifestyle. He knows from where they’re coming, and has a compassion and understanding for them …
“He brings that to the table. There’s a gentle compassion about him that not everyone has.”
Sprague was born in the small town of Chapleau, Ont. His father abandoned him as an infant, and he grew up with a step-father who’d been a military vet and was hard on the boy.
He started drinking at age nine, and by the time he was a teenager Sprague was a crystal meth addict.
“I was a very angry young man,” he says. “Very anti-authoritarian. I was a regular butt-head. It was just, don’t talk to me the wrong way or I’ll punch you out. Even if I get punched out doing it.”
In 1972, Sprague trained to become an orderly and got clean. For the next eight years he worked in hospitals, and moved to Whiterock, B.C., in 1977 shortly after getting married. But the marriage didn’t last, and his then-wife left with their two-year-old daughter. He started drinking again.
“That got me into a lot of places I didn’t really want to be.”
He returned to Ontario in the 1980s and spent the decade in a bottle. It wasn’t until 1994 he realized he needed help, and went into a 10-month treatment program.
When he got out, Sprague was once again clean and started work in Kitchener for an addiction counselling service. It was his job to set up offices for the organization in different cities, and after he got engaged again he followed his fiancee to Calgary. The relationship failed, but Sprague didn’t dwell on it. He’d become close to the woman’s three step-children, and loved his work.
That job, and his sobriety, ended when the non-profit organization was asked by the province to provide revenue information. The company was missing info, so it was investigated and the Calgary office was shut down in 1999.
Sprague left the company, bitter that poor paperwork had ruined all the work he’d done.
“I had that all established,” he says. “When that went, along with not having the relationship, not having the support network that I should had around myself, my support was the work I was doing. I didn’t belong to any 12-step program. The work was keeping me sober. When I went back out, I went right to where I started.”
Sprague accepts a donation at a fundraiser shortly after the Kerr fire.
Sprague’s face ceased to be symmetrical in 2002.
After his job ended, Sprague did odd jobs and eventually moved to the Okanagan. It was there he started dealing drugs, and made the mistake of smoking the crack cocaine he was supposed to have sold. That angered his supplier, who crushed the left side of Sprague’s face with brass knuckles. Sprague had plastic surgery done, but the faded damage is still visible.
Shortly after he left the hospital, a friend spotted Sprague on the street and asked if he’d move to Nelson to heal. He consented, but the change of scenery didn’t make an immediate impact.
“It took me four years of being here to get away from the cocaine completely,” he says. “But the alcohol took over.”
Sprague moved into Kerr Apartments and became the building’s manager. It was there he began what was initially a contentious relationship with then-fire chief Simon Grypma.
“I lost my cool a few times with Dave,” says Grypma, who retired in 2014. “I think all those experiences that we had, it just built a stronger relationship.”
Grypma has said the Kerr fire was the saddest day of his 38-year career. Nelson Fire Rescue was late getting to the building because, according to Grypma, the fire alarm system wasn’t monitored and too many residents thought it was a false alarm. He remembers there were still people sleeping on the top floor when firefighters entered the building.
What Grypma prefers to remember now about the fire is the affect it had on Sprague.
“I think he finally came to the realization that he has a purpose,” says Grypma. “So many people who have that dependency on drugs or alcohol, it takes an enormous event to change their lifestyle and their focus on life period. In the case of Dave, that fire was a massive eye-opener for him.”
Fires had already played a part in two tragedies for Sprague prior to 2011. In 1982, a fire burnt down his home in Tofino, B.C. Then in 1998, his sister Virginia was killed in a fire that destroyed her trailer.
But in the days following the Kerr fire, Sprague was stunned when the other tenants asked him to represent them in meetings with various organizations. He began working to find people new homes, and in that time lost the compulsion to drink. He’s been sober since February 18, 2011.
Later that year he started volunteering with the Salvation Army, and teamed up with Grypma on a program that delivered free smoke alarms to low-income families.
During that time a fellow Kerr resident saw Sprague at a fundraising benefit and offered him a ring he still wears. On it, two geckos are attached by their tails.
“She says, ‘I see you as going two different directions. You’re fighting yourself all the time. That’s going to change.’ She gifted me the ring and I started thinking about it. And yeah, I had the one that wanted to go and hang out with my old buddies, and I had the other one that wanted to go and do the right things in my life.
“Instead of being a detraction in the community I lived into being a contributing member of the community. Since the fire? Yeah, I am a contributing member.”
Sprague’s personal life has also improved. He’s speaking with his daughter again, as well as a son he had but never previously met. He still keeps in contact with his step-children, and relishes his work. It’s taken years, but Sprague’s finally embraced responsibilities he didn’t want before the fire.
“A lot of people have seen things in me I didn’t see in myself back then,” he says.
But he sees them now.