Candlelight vigil held for missing SC lobbyist

By Nikki

COLUMBIA, S.C. (WCIV) -- On Wednesday, several hundred people gathered at the Statehouse in Columbia for a candlelight vigil for Tom Sponseller, 61. The event was organized by family, including his daughter, Meghan Sponseller Ward, of West Ashley.

Sponseller is a graduate of The Citadel. He is also the current president and chief executive officer of the South Carolina Hospitality Association.

With candles lifted in the air, a large crowd sang several songs of hope followed by a prayer from Chris Clements, a priest who attends church with Sponseller and his wife at St. Mary's Episcopal Church in Irmo.

"We gather here to lift up our friend, Tom. Whatever his circumstances at the moment, we pray he feels your loving care," said Clements in front of a podium during the prayer. "We pray fervently that Tom will soon return to the community to resume his place as husband, father, colleague, and friend."

According to Columbia police, family members have made repeated attempts to contact Tom Sponseller without success.

Sponseller was last seen working in downtown Columbia around Noon on February 18th. Police did locate the 61-year-old's car outside the place where he works but found nothing unusual.

"For him to miss a Pinewood derby for his grandson and for him to disappear when he has his fourth grandson due very soon, that's not Tom," said Damita Jeter of Summerville.

Jeter knows Sponseller and his family well and traveled from the Lowcountry to attend the vigil.

"Tom was a very big, family man. His grandchildren call him 'Papa Tom.' He did everything for his family," said Jeter.

Police say that about a year ago, Sponseller was in a car accident where he blacked out prior to the crash and possibly had a seizure. Right now, it's not known if his health may have played a role in his disappearance.

"Most of us are frustrated because there seems nothing we're able to do," said Clements.

Clements describes Sponseller as a man who cares deeply for South Carolina's hospitality industry.

"He's a lobbyist, but he doesn't have the bad reputation that lobbyists sometimes have. He's a really fine person," said Clements.

Jeter backs Clements statement.

"He's a wonderful professional. He does so much for the tourism industry in South Carolina," she said.

Friends hope for his safe return home because they say he still has so much more to accomplish.

"You need to come home quickly because you got to keep this house in order back here," said Rick Erwin with the SC Hospitality Association.

According to the SC Hospitality Association, Sponseller grew up in Greenville and is married with three adult children. He spent 18 years with Canteen Corporation and joined the South Carolina Restaurant Association in 1990, helping facilitate a merger with the South Carolina Hotel & Motel Association in 1992.

The organization recently issued this statement on its website:

The SC Hospitality Association members and staff are deeply concerned for Tom Sponseller's whereabouts. He was last seen in the association office at noon on Saturday February 18, 2012. The Columbia Police Department has launched a full investigation and we are working with them.

Tom has served as President and CEO of the South Carolina Hospitality Association for nearly 22 years. He is a prominent hospitality industry leader here in our state as well as nationally. Our thoughts and prayers are with Tom's family and friends.

If you have any information where Tom may be, you're urged to call Crime Stoppers. That number is 1-888-CRIME-SC.

Sponseller stands about 6'1'' and weighs about 160 pounds. He also has gray/white hair, hazel eyes, and typically wears glasses.