In Jewish mysticism, the number three represents harmony that comes from the synthesis of seeming opposites. Certainly, the number three was an important one for Tom Sparacino, who died suddenly on February 22, 2011 at the age of 67 in his Santa Clara home.
Born in Santa Clara on June 17, 1942, Sparacino was the oldest of three brothers. Sparacino and his wife and daughter were a close-knit family of three. And he had three talents that people never fail to note: He was an accomplished artist, a highly skilled marksman, and an inspired conversationalist.
But many would say his greatest talent was a synthesis of the three: encouraging others to develop their own talents, to persevere in striving for excellence, and to trust their own artistic vision.
So great was the affection Sparacino inspired in everyone who knew him that Santa Clara’s Carmelite monastery church, where he and his family were regular parishioners, was filled to overflowing at his funeral last week.
“He had a huge heart,” is how Tom’s brother Mark Sparacino puts it. “He was the guy who would always help you work out a problem, and you wouldn’t necessarily know [that Tom helped]. He’d just know when you needed a backup – he was just there.”
Tom Sparacino received a Masters degree in art from San Jose State and subsequently served in the U.S. Army Reserves. It was while in the army that he began pursuing what would be another life-long avocation: marksmanship. In 1966 he married another San Jose State graduate, Jennifer Finkas, and the couple settled in Santa Clara where Jennifer would go on to become City Manager.
“The minute you spoke to him, you could see that he really loved Santa Clara,” says Santa Clara Acting Assistant City Manager Carol McCarthy. They [the Sparacinos] explored every inch of this city. [When they ate out] you would always find them at Santa Clara restaurants.”
For nearly 40 years, Sparacino taught painting and photography at San Jose Community College and the Santa Clara Adult Education Center. A noted watercolorist and photographer, Sparacino brought unique insight to his work, taking a particular interest in local history, say friends and family. Alviso harbor was a particular favorite.
“He always had four or five paintings he was working on,” Mark Sparacino remembers. “Art was a passion [for Tom] from a very early age, [but] he always had an incredible number of interests.”
“Everywhere he went he brought his camera with him,” says his daughter Bricken Sparacino. “Usually it would end with an adventure. He would do almost anything to get the perfect picture. Climbing a tree, standing precariously on a water front railing.”
“He liked the ‘grittier’ areas – downtown San Jose in the 1960s,” recalls Mark. “He liked that energy. He never made things look ‘pretty.’ He liked the story of life on people’s faces.”
“He always taught me to look at the world outside the box,” says Bricken, who takes her father’s advice to heart daily in her career as a performer, director, producer, writer, and yes, an educator for the NYC Wildlife Conservation Society.
“My dad never took a picture of a beautiful vista or a majestic building. He took a picture of a single branch lifting up into the sky or the corner of a building where it meets the sidewalk. He turned the overlooked into the beautiful.”
That insight was part of Tom Sparacino’s remarkable teaching ability. “He had a gift for helping people find their talent,” says Colleen Santos, who studied with Sparacino for over 20 years. “I was always learning and could see improvement.” Students often said of Sparacino that he brought out talent they didn’t know they had.
“Tom pushed me and encouraged me until I found my own voice and style,” Lorraine Rossini Hamby of San Carlos wrote at legacy.com. “After I had hit on nearly every painting cliché, he kept prodding me, even though I couldn’t understand it at the time. With his encouragement and help, I began painting my own thing, my own way.”
It wasn’t only artistic talent that made Sparacino welcome everywhere. It was also his personal warmth and ease. “Being with him was like being with an old friend,” says Elaine Lewis of Santa Clara. He made you feel so comfortable.”
“We all looked to him to take care of us and he never failed to do so,” says daughter Bricken. “Once you were a part of his ‘family’ you were in for life. And once you were “in” he would take care of you.”
“When I was first on the City Council and didn’t know a lot of people, he always made me feel comfortable and at home [at social events],” echoes City Council Member Pat Kolstad. “He looked out for folks. He was kind, that’s the main thing I remember about him.”
Tom was predeceased by his parents Salvatore and Ethel Sparacino. He is survived by his wife Jennifer Sparacino, daughter Bricken Sparacino, son-in-law Michael Birch, brothers Dennis and Mark Sparacino, and a large extended family.
Donations in memory of Tom Sparacino can be made to Santa Clara Adult Education Center, 1840 Benton St., Santa Clara, CA 95050.