Danny and Mary Jean Sanspree keep ‘showing up,’ serving others


Danny and Mary Jean Sanspree

It is often said that 90 percent of life is just showing up. And indeed, some people do just that: they keep showing up no matter what. And people with that sense of loyalty, fidelity, and reliability typically have a focus that goes beyond themselves. They seem to enjoy doing good work to help others. Case in point: Auburn alums and College of Education stalwarts Danny and Mary Jean Sanspree.

In the fall of 1971, Danny was enrolled in one of those big auditorium world history classes in Haley Center, this one taught by Dr. Allen Cronenberg. Danny was a History Education major and never missed the early morning lecture. Same thing for Mary Jean Frech, a Speech Pathology and Special Education major; she was always there. About six weeks into the fall quarter, Cronenberg announced that the class would not be meeting the next day, and told everyone to enjoy the break. All 150 student did that — except Danny and Mary Jean. They both showed up.

Care Flight Helicopter

“I don’t know how that happened,” Danny recalled. “Dr. Cronenberg must have made it pretty clear because we were the only two people there. But I took the opportunity to ask Mary Jean if she would have a Coke with me. She did, and I tried to get a date. This was in early October. She was booked up until November!”

But once the two got together, it was clearly meant to be. They were married the following year, while Danny was earning All-SEC honors as a defensive end for the Tiger team forever known as “The Amazins.” That team was picked to win three games but won 10. They beat number two Alabama in the famous 17-16 “Punt Bama Punt” game. They trounced Colorado in the Gator Bowl. They didn’t have great statistics. They didn’t have flashy players. They just kept showing up. And winning.

medical equipment

Danny was drafted into the NFL by the St. Louis Cardinals but he hurt his knee in the All American game in Lubbock, Texas and was advised to give up football. With their Auburn degrees in hand, the couple moved to Birmingham where Mary Jean’s father needed help at Seminole Sales Corporation, his wholesale engine parts business. It was supposed to be a temporary move, but that’s not how it turned out. Danny ended up taking over the business, earning a law degree along the way, and made a 40-year career out of it. They still live on land that was owned by her father.

Meanwhile, Mary Jean began her career teaching speech pathology in the Jefferson County schools while earning Master’s and doctoral degrees. She eventually transitioned into working with people who were blind or vision impaired, and moved to the Eye Foundation Hospital in 1984.

“My career at UAB was very rewarding and led me into many different areas of teaching, human resource management, and staff education,” she said. “I enjoyed working in this area which culminated in me working with teachers who would work with the blind.”

As both the Sansprees moved toward retirement, they made a commitment to keep active and serve others.

Critical Care Transport Team Ambulance

“One thing we have stayed involved with is bringing eye care and glasses to low-income residents of the Alabama Black Belt,” Mary Jean said. “Our involvement there began when UAB received a grant from the Centers for Disease Control. I began taking our optometry faculty and interns to small Black Belt towns like Linden, Camden, and York. We would have eye clinics where we would prescribe and fit local people with glasses, all at no cost to them. Danny and I still go down there once a month to fit glasses for the people there.”

Six years later, in 2008, Mary Jean was serving as District Governor of the North Alabama Rotary district, and she paid a visit to the club in Inverness. Another opportunity to serve presented itself.

“One of the members came up to me and explained that Children’s Hospital needed money for its critical care transport unit, specifically a helicopter. We decided then and there to kick off a fundraiser at our May district conference. Children’s flew in a chopper and we pledged to raise $1 million. We decided to try an annual shrimp boil and named it ‘Boiling N’ Bragging.’ The idea was that different colleges and universities would set up tents and bring in their people for a low country shrimp boil and tailgate party. Our first event only raised $1,200 but our Rotarian friends knew we could make it work.”

And make it work they did. The Sansprees kept showing up, year after year, and so did their Rotary friends and colleagues from other schools. At this year’s event they hope to officially surpass $1 million in donations to the Children’s Hospital critical care transport unit.

Group photo with masctos

“There are lots of good photos of the event on the internet, but you never see Danny because he is always way in the back as the main man on the boiling pots,” Mary Jean laughed. “He already knew how to do large-scale shrimp boils from our church Vestavia Methodist, where he does something similar to raise money for missions there. And of course he volunteers at the Food Bank, too. Danny stays involved in a lot of important projects!”

The Boiling N’ Bragging event now draws more than 1,000 people annually and is basically a huge, multi-school tailgate party. The Greater Birmingham Auburn Club puts on the show for the Tigers, and Aubie is always on hand to welcome his fellow Auburnites.

“I think there are now 18 schools there for the August event,” she said. “We get lots of campaign support from a lot of areas. The event is located at Otey’s in Crestline. Wood Fruitticher is a major supporter in terms of the food. Charter/Spectrum provides advertising. Danny’s shrimp team has about 10 guys. They boil several hundred pounds of fresh shrimp from Bayou La Batre, and in separate pots they boil corn, potatoes, and sausage. The work and the planning go on year round.”

The Children’s transport program costs a staggering $300,000 per month to operate, so support like the Boiling N’ Bragging event is critically important. The Rotarians purchased a new ambulance for the transport unit at a cost of $250,000. They also do smaller things like collect warmers for bassinets and supplies for the transport vehicles.

“I’d say we learned a lot about service to others while we were students at Auburn,” Danny said. “Coach Ralph ‘Shug’ Jordan was a strong, tough man, a veteran of four beach invasions in World War II and a winner of the Purple Heart. But deep down he believed in giving and taught us to care about our teammates and others. It was always a family feeling for us at Auburn.”

Mary Jean said she also had service ingrained in her work as a Speech Pathology and Special Ed major at Auburn, where she and her fellow students provided hearing tests for education majors.

Basically we just enjoy being part of a larger community and trying to do our part to make our community stronger. The heart for service we developed at Auburn is something that really doesn’t fade over time. I think we will always enjoy that.

In terms of service to the College of Education, the Sansprees served on the Development Leadership Team as part of the very successful $1 billion “Because This Is Auburn” campaign, including serving as hosts for an event in Birmingham.

“Basically we just enjoy being part of a larger community and trying to do our part to make our community stronger,” Mary Jean said. “The heart for service we developed at Auburn is something that really doesn’t fade over time. I think we will always enjoy that.”

The world is made better by people who have a heart for service. You can see them anywhere. They are the ones who keep showing up.

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