October 20, 1946 – January 4, 2021
After being asked, who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, “Jesus called a child unto him, and set him in the midst of them.” He said, “Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoso shall receive one such little child in my name receiveth me.” The qualities that Christ described, while often the product of lifelong effort and refinement, came almost as second nature to Maxine Sponseller. She always had a special love for little children. But more than that, she emulated their innocence and compassion. Indeed, she was humble like a little child.
When she was still in high school, Maxine met her future husband, Lou Sponseller, because he was good friends with her boyfriend at the time. When the boyfriend joined the army and moved away, Lou asked for his friend’s blessing before asking Maxine out. The former boyfriend said he was more than okay with it. However, he also warned that Maxine was known for not having any qualms about befriending black students at school—breaking from the norm at that time. Sure enough, Lou later recalled being at a high school basketball game with Maxine where she waived at the black players entering the gym. She called out congratulatory praises whenever they made a shot. They just waved back and said, “Thanks, Maxine.”
She was aware of the widespread prejudices of that time, but prejudice could not taint her outlook on life. She was not trying to start a movement or make any political statements, but she never saw herself as superior or others as inferior. In that sense, she was not just ahead of her time; rather, she was simply humble like a little child.
Her favorite song was a hymn that goes as follows:
As I have loved you, love one another
This new commandment, love one another
By this shall men know, ye are my disciples
If ye have love one to another
Maxine’s life could be defined by the message of that song. She sang it, she internalized it, and she lived it.
When Maxine started dating Lou Sponseller more seriously, she could often be seen riding around Portland in the passenger seat of Lou’s Chevrolet Bel Air. He was proud of his car and even more proud of the girl who sat shotgun.
At some point during their stylish courtship, they wondered where they should get married. Her family was not religious and did not attend any church. Lou, however, mentioned that his grandmother had taken him to the Mormon Church where he had been baptized as a member while still a child.
The couple sat down with a local Mormon bishop who said he would be more than happy to perform their wedding. He also invited Maxine to learn a little more about the Mormon Church. She was interested and began meeting with missionaries.
At the time, Lou was more interested in a wedding venue than a lifestyle change. Hanging out with Mormon missionaries did not seem to fit with a stylish 60s romance. But as Maxine later wrote concerning the missionaries, “I believed every word they said.” She joined the Church, married Lou, and the two of them remained committed to their religion and its teachings for the rest of their lives.
Both accepted and fulfilled several responsibilities in the Church. But aside from her more official duties, Maxine was always calling friends to chat on the phone, or offering to watch people’s children, even though she had three children of her own. Her kids now remember thinking what a cool mom they had because of the way she treated all the other kids in the neighborhood.
She also became very passionate about family history. She studied facts and stories about her ancestors. She read their journals and poured over pedigree charts. She saw herself as one link in an ongoing chain, and she viewed her life as one small piece of a much larger family story. In her own journal she would write notes to her infant children such as, “You were sick today, Ryan. I wish I knew what to feed you.”
One aspect of her family’s history involved Huntington’s disease. However, when the disease began affecting Maxine’s mental faculties in later years, her same characteristics still shone through. Although she did not write journal entries to her grandkids, she would say things of her granddaughter such as, “Oh Abigail. We love Abigail.” And when she could no longer read, she still skimmed over the pages of her scriptures out of habit.
When she eventually became bedridden, Lou and her son, Ryan, took care of her daily. They had each depended on her love and example in so many instances. Then, she depended on theirs. None of them were perfect, but they were everything a family should be. They buoyed one another up and added their links to an unbreakable family chain. When Lou died in the summer of 2020, Maxine entered a nursing home where she passed away five months later.
One can envision Lou Sponseller starting up some heavenly version of a Chevy Bel Air in order to pick up his sweetheart one last time. Out of Portland and into the sunset they ride. It seems only fitting, though, that such a picturesque final scene would be accompanied by a soundtrack that not only encapsulates the moment but reflects the life of the woman riding away: “As I have loved you, love one another” is the song we hear as we bid her farewell. That is the sentiment we will always remember when thinking of Maxine Sponseller—the woman who avoided contention, never spoke ill of others, and instinctively saw the good in those around her. She was a woman of incredible character because she was, above all, humble like a little child.
As she leaves this world behind her, she rides toward a world—as described in the scriptures she so often read—in which “the wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.”