last friday saw the passing of one james l. spork, the creator of that untencil we remember from the time we were young and still use at quality restaurant establishments such as popeyes or kentucky fried chicken. he left behind a legacy that none of us will soon forget.
and yet few know him. why? some of that is his own fault.
he was born in a small town outside of terre haute, indiana, the son of german immigrants. not much is known of his early childhood. his father worked at a butchery he eventually came to own. his mother was a seamstress. they were quiet and learned english quickly.
in high school there are many records that show mr. spork stood out in two fields: science and playwriting. he won first place in the science fair all four years of high school. and his play "a wind blows in indiana" won the young players award two years in a row. but he felt that he was holding back on his plays. this is where he ran into some trouble.
his junior year he put on a play called "the deviances of mr. danforth." the play was considered too vulgar for a small town in 1959 and he was almost expelled. his mother talked to the principal and after spending 20 minutes in the office alone with him not only was spork relieved, but the play was allowed to continue. there were protests over the next two weeks and the indiana star-ledger even did a piece about the protests.
his final year of high school was much the same. after picking up first place at the science fair he enraged the townsfolk with a play called "dick and jane." the lead character, "dick" was portrayed as a talking penis. needless to say, this drew the ire of the principal, who this time demanded to see spork's mother before he could allow such a play to continue.
spork had a dream to leave indiana and that dream came true when he received his acceptance letter to hunter college, a part of the city university of new york. he would major in engineering. but he came to the big apple with another dream. he packed his bags with many scripts and plays and was convinced that new york was more mature and ready for his brand of stage drama.
apparently, he devoted much of his time towards pursuing that engineering degree because not much is on the record between 1961 and 1964. right before he graduated he joined the engineering society and, in fact, became the president. he graduated and was offered a job with general electric's production and invention team. everything is quiet until 1967. that's when he picked up writing again and met adriana.
in 1967 spork, along with some people he met in college, produced an off-off broadway play that caused a bit of sensation around bleecker street. "the lips of helena st. croix" featured a mostly brazillian and an all nude cast. helena was played by the beautiful adriana, whom spork fell in love with. in 1968 they were married.
adriana loved to cook. on many days she would make enough food for spork to share with the rest of the boys over in his department at g.e. they absolutely loved adriana's brazilian cuisine. but they sometimes found it difficult to eat the soup and have the cheese rice, a brazilian staple, along with the rest of the food in the alotted lunch time. it was around this time that spork began to devise a utencil that would simplify their eating experience.
but he also kept writing. his next play, "three can play it that game" was considered too lewd by the small theater owner and it was cancelled before it could open. devastated, spork got back to his utencil.
he finished several and handed them out to his coworkers. they immediately noticed an improvement in their eating habits. they could now eat the cheese rice, the soup and just about anything that the lady adriana fed them.
the next morning bob lombowski, a coworker and friend of spork from college, suggested that they approach the head of production and invention with this new utencil. spork agreed. they needed to bring with them some of adriana's cooking. and they needed a name for this utencil, what seemed to be a combination of a spoon and a fork.
"a foon!" spork answered excitedly. "it's basically a combination of a fork and a spoon. the guys up there will love it."
what spork did not know was that "guys up stairs" really loved to make fun of his name. "hey, it's spork, everybody!" announced the production manager to everybody's amusement. "please tell us you've brought some of adriana's delicious food."
"i have, sir. and i brought this new utencil for you to eat it with. it's a combination of a fork and a spoon. i call it a 'foon'."
"a what? a spork?" everybody chuckles. of course, they all eat. and actually, they are all quite impressed with the new utencil.
"spork, this is amazing. we'll show it to the head immediately. this should be introduced to schools and finer restaurant establishments immediately. what did you say it was called again? a spork?"
"a foon, sir"
"we'll talk about that." he then addresses everyone else, who are still eating. "gentleman, we may have found ourselves the invention of the century. i give you...the spork!"
"the foon!" yelled spork. but it was useless. he was drowned out by the chants of "spork! spork! spork!" and men carrying bowls of cheese rice, a brazilian staple.
the next few months saw the production of millions of these new "sporks." spork himself suffered writer's block and began to experience his first bout of depression. he tried several times to get the name of his utencil changed to "foon," which he felt was the logical combination of fork and spoon. but it was to no avail.
the sporks were a hit. and spork soon became rich from his product. but he never got back into writing, which was his true passion. some say he never got over not being able to name his own invention. "the foon," he would say. "it's so logical."
perhaps the biggest insult came to him at when, at age 40, he decided to go back to terre haute for the first time since leaving to go to college. right there in the middle of town, where main meets pennsylvania, is a giant statue in the shape of his famous utencil. it's plaque reads:
welcome to terre haute. home of the parents of
james l. spork, inventor of the spork.
he read it, turned around and went back to new york.
james l. spork died of natural causes at lennox hill hospital on the upper east side on friday and leaves his wife adriana, two sons and five grandchildren. but he leaves behind more than that. so the next time you go into a fine restaurant establishment such as popeyes or kentucky fried chicken think about how easy it is for you to eat your mashed potatoes, jumbalaya AND fried chicken. think about that next time you pick up your foon, the logical combination of a fork and spoon.