Hank Sprouse ’62

I chose Wesleyan because when I was a freshman in high school, the outstanding guy in our school, Bob Gillette ’59, went to Wesleyan. And then, when I was a sophomore, the outstanding guy in our school, David Potts ’60, went to Wesleyan. And then my best friend, Emil Frankel ’61, who was a year ahead of me, went to Wesleyan. And I followed in the footsteps of those three wonderful men.

Two life lessons I learned at Wesleyan. Wesleyan is where I first had the feeling that we are all in this thing called life together—and that you have to respect each other. We all need hope at times, and we all need help at times. If we can give either help or hope to someone, it’s a wonderful gift. In my junior year we had an exchange student from Nigeria named [Olatunde] John Ojo. I was a member of Eclectic and John was in our eating club, so we grew close. I think meeting John was the beginning of my respect for others and the realization that we were all in this together—and I think Jack (John) Hoy couldn’t have made a better choice than to expand the admissions policy in that direction. The second thing I realized, during my sophomore year, was that in making choices you needed to assume responsibility.

My favorite professor was Peter Boynton, who taught humanities during my freshman year. Boynton was a very interesting, laidback guy. I was academically intimated when I came to Wesleyan, and I had to work really hard to get through everything. Boynton understood that, perfectly. He was a very kind, gentle soul who helped me through that first year of humanities. It really took a lot on his part to recognize this one kid who needed help but who was too afraid to ask for it, and I will never forget his kindness.

I was a biology major at Wesleyan and a dentist in my first life, running a dental practice in Fairfield for almost 40 years. Early on in my career, a patient came to my office carrying a little box, and he said, “I just want to show you that other people have talent with their hands.” He opened the box, and there was a half-carved wooden duck. I looked at it, and I instantly fell in love.

Wood was in my family history. My grandfather, whom I never knew, had a furniture-making company in Virginia, and my dad’s hobby was duplicating furniture: If you had one chair and you wanted a pair, he would make the other. I suppose that’s what really made me connect with this wooden decoy.

I asked my patient where he’d learned to carve, and he told me about the class he attended. I asked him to let me know the next time there was an opening, and four months later he called. Every Monday night for close to 12 years, 52 weeks a year, I was in that class.

Carving has been such a wonderful fit for my skillset. I started with ducks, carving decorative decoys—meaning that while they’re judged in water, they aren’t used in hunting. I carve them, I sand them, I use a burning tool to carve every barb of every feather, and then I paint them. In my retirement, I’m carving more songbirds now, along with a few ducks and a few raptors—anything with wings.

I’m a veteran—I was in the U.S. Army from 1967 to 1969, after dental school—and I’d always wanted to do something for the vets. One Friday morning, when I was cooking at our local food bank, a vet told me the VA program in West Haven, Connecticut, was looking for a wood carver, and I jumped at the opportunity. That class is what led me to the eagle cane project, carving eagle heads for canes for wounded vets. I can’t tell you what joy it brings me to do something I love while doing something good for somebody else.

Carving has opened doors and taken me places I couldn’t have dreamed of, and I can’t think of anything more spectacular or better for my retirement than this: doing something creative, something I love, and something that brings joy to others. I can’t tell you how wonderful that is.

Hank Sprouse ’62 retired from dentistry in 2007. He lives in Stratford, Connecticut. To learn more about his carving, visit Hank’s website, hanksduckdecoys.com.

Hank Sprouse ’62, holds the carving of two cardinals he presented as part of the Class of 1962’s class gift at his Fiftieth Reunion in 2012. The carving is on display on the third floor of the Usdan University Center, in the glass case outside of the Daniel Family Commons.