LONDON, Ky. - LONDON, Ky. (AP) — Even while fighting cancer and undergoing chemotherapy, Bill Sparkman would show up for work wearing his customary smile and a toboggan cap to cover his balding head.
The substitute teacher and part-time census worker cherished the values he learned in his youth as he worked toward becoming an Eagle Scout. Above all, he was punctual and dependable.
So when he didn't show up for his job at Johnson Elementary School two weeks ago, colleagues knew something had to be wrong.
Three days later, a man's body was found hanging from a tree at a rural cemetery in nearby Clay County. A rope was around his neck, the word "fed" scrawled on him with what appeared to the coroner to be a felt marker.
It was Sparkman, dead of asphyxiation.
State and federal investigators still have not determined whether someone may have killed Sparkman because of anti-government sentiment. State police Capt. Lisa Rudzinski said investigators haven't ruled anything out, including whether the death that has so shocked his friends and colleagues was a homicide, suicide or accidental. But a man who found Sparkman's body while visiting the cemetery said he had been gagged, had duct tape over his eyes, and his hands and feet were bound with duct tape.
Friends remembered Sparkman as a quiet and kind man who had devoted his life to children as a Scout leader and educator who, despite a battle with lymphoma, went back to college to get his teaching certification.
His perseverance won him special honors at his commencement ceremony last year at Western Governors University in Salt Lake City. The bespectacled scholar, wearing a black cap and gown, delivered an uplifting speech to fellow graduates, telling them that they, too, can overcome "brick walls" in life.
"I was knocked down, but I refused to be knocked out," he said in a witty speech that drew chuckles from faculty and classmates.
Sparkman, who had studied math and Spanish in college, turned to WGU to earn a degree in education so he could teach middle school math.
His sense of humor was one of the things that endeared Sparkman to colleagues, said Kelly Hodges, a teacher at Johnson Elementary School.
"He always had a smile," she said.
The son of a high school principal, Sparkman moved to London more than a decade ago when he was working for Boy Scouts of America. An Eagle scout, he had previously been on the organization's staff in Florida and Texas, said his mother, Henrie Sparkman of Inverness, Fla.
"He was always helping others," she said. "He was a very gentle person."
Growing up, Sparkman was an altar server at his Episcopal church. In high school, his mother said Sparkman wrote sports stories for the local weekly newspaper in Florida, The Mulberry Press, and was the football team manager. During and after college, he served as the sports editor, covering high school athletics.
"We were a small paper, so he wasn't doing it necessarily for the money," said former publisher Virgil Davis. "He just liked being involved with youth activities."
Soon after arriving in Kentucky more than 12 years ago, Sparkman's adopted son, Josh, enrolled at Johnson Elementary. That's when Sparkman began serving as a classroom volunteer. He later joined the staff as a teacher's aide and as a substitute teacher.
Even after completing his teaching degree, Sparkman chose to stay in Kentucky, even though his now-adult son had moved to Tennessee.
"My home, my life is here in Laurel County, and this is where I want to stay," Sparkman told The Times-Tribune of Corbin in a profile last year.
Sparkman, who described himself as a single father in his commencement speech, was a member of First United Methodist Church in London and a vocal Christian. Mary Hibbard, a teacher in Manchester, recalled Sparkman visiting her home over the summer on behalf of the Census Bureau. She quizzed him about his faith and found out quickly that he had a strong belief in God.
Sparkman lived on the outskirts of London on Sherwood Lane in a single-story white house with black shutters. A rutted gravel driveway leads up to the tidy lawn surrounded by bushes and trees.
Neighbor Eileen Bass said Sparkman was loved by children in the neighborhood. She said her grandson used to go to Sparkman's house to play with Josh.
"He was a quiet man," Bass said. "He was always friendly. Always kind."
Johnson Elementary music teacher Tracey Evans said children excitedly anticipated Sparkman's classroom appearances.
"He respected the children. He respected everyone," Evans said. "He took time to notice children."