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Former state delegate Michael Sprague, remembered by friends and colleagues as a conscientious lawmaker and supreme amateur athlete, died from lymphoma Saturday at a Washington, D.C., hospital. He was 71.

The Port Tobacco resident began his political career with a successful run for Charles County commissioner in 1970, and four years later, moved on to the Maryland House of Delegates, where he would serve until stepping down in 1994.

Born in Indian Head, Sprague was a star athlete at Lackey High School, where he won a state championship as a senior guard on the 1958 boys basketball team.

After graduation, Sprague served in the U.S. Army from 1959 to 1961.

He attended Charles County Community College, now the College of Southern Maryland, and received a degree from Appalachian State Teachers College in 1965, now Appalachian State University.

Sprague then went to work as a State Farm insurance agent in Bryans Road, a job he held for 40 years before retiring in 2006.

In his spare time, Sprague enjoyed playing golf.

Re-elected to the statehouse five times, Sprague spent all but his last year in Annapolis as a member of the House Ways and Means Committee. He joined the House Economic Matters Committee for one year in 1994.

Former state senator James C. Simpson, whose time in public office mirrored Sprague’s, described his former colleague as “a great legislator.”

“When he got really interested in a piece of legislation, he would do great research on it, and that was the side most people never saw of Mike,” Simpson said. “He probably represented Southern Maryland as well as anybody ever did. But he was just a fun-loving guy. You had to have fun when you were around him. We had a lot of great times, needless to say, over those years.”

Months after he was appointed to fill a vacancy on the Charles County board of commissioners, Simpson ran on the same ticket with Sprague in 1970.

He swears it was merely coincidence four years later when both men, frustrated with how expensive the state made it for local governments to function, decided to run for the statehouse, and again in 1994, when both decided to retire from public office.

“None of it was really scripted. It just kind of happened,” Simpson said. “Needless to say, I’m certainly going to miss him. I’ve lost a very close friend that I have very fond memories of. He was just a wonderful guy.”

Former delegate J. Ernest Bell II, who represented St. Mary's County from 1983 to 1994, last saw Sprague while playing in a softball game last year, fitting given the two met on a baseball diamond more than half a century ago, when Bell was an outfielder for Ryken High School and Sprague a second baseman for Lackey.

“He was a much better athlete than me,” Bell conceded. “We cemented our friendship in athletic endeavors, most of which I have to admit his teams won.”

Bell said he and Sprague shared an office at the statehouse and spent a lot of time together on the House floor, where Sprague’s wit served him well.

“In my years in the House of Delegates, he was unequaled in his ability to defuse a volatile situation with a sense of humor, so much so that when Mike took the floor on an issue he felt strongly about, it was not only enlightening, it was entertaining,” Bell said. “He could ease an uneasy situation with his sense of humor, and he was able to use his humor to put a person in his place.”

Former Charles County commissioner and state delegate William Daniel Mayer said he and Sprague knew each other as teens and attended community college together.

“I think Mike’s biggest quality was he was he could get along with everyone in politics. He was a consensus builder, and he did a lot of good for Charles County, a whole lot more than I thought he ever got credit for,” Mayer said. “Later in life, he was just enjoying life and it’s a shame that at such an age he’s gone. We’re going to miss him."

A Republican, Mayer said Sprague was one of the first Democrats to support his first run for county commissioner in 1994.

“With Mike, it didn’t matter what label you had. He cared about who was best for the county,” Mayer said. “It’s too bad we don’t have more of that today.”

John Hanson Briscoe, who served in the House from 1962 to 1979 and led the chamber as speaker during Sprague’s first term as a delegate, remembers first meeting then-commissioner Sprague at a forum in La Plata.

He recalled fondly Sprague’s answer to one constituent who asked the commissioner why he was running for the legislature.

“He said, ‘I really don’t like this job much,’ ” Briscoe said, adding that Sprague promised to “spend their money like I spend mine” if he was elected to Annapolis.

“If you know Mike Sprague, he was very frugal,” Briscoe added. “He was a tightwad and a fiscal conservative.

“He was a good legislator, great sense of humor, great kidder. He loved to kid and joke. He was very conscientious, and he really made sure that what he did was for the betterment of Southern Maryland. He was a real Southern Maryland boy. That came first. He never looked at greater statewide ambitions.”

Visitation will be held from 3 to 8 p.m. today at Williams Funeral Home in Glymont. The funeral will be held at 10 a.m. Oct. 4 at St. Mary, Star of the Sea Church in Indian Head.

The family has asked that memorial contributions be made to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, National Capital Area Chapter at www.lls.org or by mail to Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, 5845 Richmond Highway, Alexandria, VA 22303.

jnewman@somdnews.com