Cliff Sponsel: 1910 – 2014In Memoriam | Tue Jun 02, 2015 | 6:00am
Cliff Sponsel grew up on a 30-acre fruit farm in Lockport, New York, and went to a one-room schoolhouse. It was perhaps not that uncommon in the second decade of the 20th century, but the rest of Cliff’s life was anything but.
For instance, unless you drive a Ford, the next time you adjust the temperature in your car, think of Cliff. At the age of 21, he went to work for a division of General Motors. The year was 1932, and automobile heaters could only be purchased as an after-market item; the thermostats in them constantly caused problems. Cliff thought he had a better idea — and he did. Eventually GM sold Cliff’s thermostats to all of the other car companies except Ford.
Cliff was an engineer, inventor, entrepreneur, and philanthropist. After his time with GM, he turned his attention to aircraft and worked at the Glenn L. Martin Company (which eventually became Lockheed Martin), Bell Aircraft Corporation, and Ryan Aeronautical Company. In 1955, Cliff moved to Santa Barbara and started his own electronics firm called Western Design, which he later sold to U.S. Industries for a handsome profit. He also helped found a similar company in San Diego called Spectral Dynamics, which produced electronic vibration analysis equipment, real-time analyzers, and digital signal processors. The company was sold to Scientific Atlanta, which was later bought by Cisco Systems in 2005.
Although his career in the automotive industry was somewhat short-lived, Cliff developed an avid and lifelong interest in antique cars. Among the many automobiles he owned and restored were a 1904 “French Front” Oldsmobile, a 1929 Ford, a 1929 Buick, a 1933 Ford Phaeton, and a 1956 Thunderbird. Over the years, many of Cliff’s cars could be seen locally at the annual Fourth of July Stow House event, the Christmas Parade, the international Polo Show, and the Santa Barbara Concours d’Elegance (which Cliff helped organize). He also drove six times in the London to Brighton Veteran Car Run in England, which features antique cars from around the world.
In 1965, Cliff retired for the third and final time. With the same zeal he brought to his many business ventures, he turned his attention to our local business and nonprofit communities. He served on the Executive Committee of the Santa Barbara Chamber of Commerce, was president of the Goleta Valley Chamber of Commerce, president of the Hope Ranch Association, founder and boardmember of the La Cumbre Mutual Water Company, and boardmember of the California Avocado Society. In addition, he gave much of his time, talent, and treasure to numerous nonprofit organizations, including the Santa Barbara Foundation, the Scholarship Foundation of Santa Barbara, Planned Parenthood, Visiting Nurse & Hospice Care, the Rehabilitation Institute (which is now part of Cottage Hospital), Santa Barbara City College, and his alma mater, Trine University.
As a businessman and keen investor, Cliff often focused on the financial health of these organizations, offering advice on their operating budgets and investment strategies. He was also a trustee of the B. Paul Moser Trust, through which he helped direct millions of dollars to local nonprofits and scholarships for students pursuing vocational educations.
Over the years, Cliff received numerous awards for his volunteerism and philanthropy. Among them were the 2008 Philanthropist of the Year and the 2010 Man of the Year.
Cliff Sponsel died at the age of 104. He is survived by his wife, Juliette, his son, Robert, daughter-in-law, Patricia, grandson, Billy, granddaughter, Stephanie, and daughter-in-law, Marilyn.
In 2010, at a party celebrating Cliff’s 100th birthday, the president of Trine University presented Cliff with his own personalized U.S. stamp. It was a simple gesture that recognized Cliff for his generosity. For those of us who were there that afternoon, it was wonderful to see the glow in Cliff’s 100-year-old eyes. The boy from the small farm and one-room schoolhouse had truly done some uncommonly special things in his life.