Jack Sapsworth passed away in February
This obituary for the late Jack Sapsworth, was written for the Oxford United edition of Talk of the Town.
Everyone at Kenilworth Road, and throughout Luton and Bedfordshire as a whole, was saddened to hear of the death last Saturday morning of Luton Town Vice President Jack Sapsworth, at the age of 75.
Jack, who was made an MBE in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours list in 2008 for his charity work, had been battling illness for many years after being diagnosed with a rare blood disorder in the early eighties. In March 2006, he suffered a haemorrhage that left him in intensive care and hospitalised for nine weeks, eventually returning home without a spleen and requiring chemotherapy tablets, which then caused kidney disease that left him requiring dialysis on a daily basis in recent years.
Last August the hugely popular local businessman was diagnosed with a brain tumour that left him wheelchairbound by September, and unable to speak by Christmas.
But, his son Gordon told Talk of the Town this week, that didn’t stop his love for the Hatters and although he was only well enough to attend a couple of games at the very start of this season, he was keeping up to speed with everything that was going on at Kenilworth Road right to the very end.
That the Glasgow-born painter and decorator had been suffering for so long, yet achieved so much in his life, provided inspiration not only to Gordon, eldest son Jack and youngest Barry, plus step-sons Dan and Keith and his ten grandchildren, but all who knew him.
Born to profoundly deaf parents and, having lost his father to TB at the age of two, raised from the age of nine months to 13-years-old by his loving maternal grandparents who had the same disability, Jack decided to move south to England aged 15.
He lived rough in Scarborough for five weeks before landing a job in a boarding house, and eventually moved to Luton – where guests had told him of a factory that employed 27,000 people – at the age of 16 in 1957.
He didn’t get a job at Vauxhall, as he intended, but worked in another boarding house before training as a painter and decorator, working his way up to become a technical assistant at Luton Borough Council, where looking after 80 decorators and three glaziers gave him the confidence to set up his own business on his 30th birthday in 1971.
By that time he was married to Betty, whom he’d wed at the age of 18 in 1959, and had their three boys and a mortgage on their Stockingstone Road home for J. Sapsworth Ltd Glazing & Decorating to provide for.
His love for his adopted hometown’s football club had begun soon after he moved south, watching the 6-3 win over Arsenal on Boxing Day 1958 and becoming hooked from that day on.
Attending matches both home and away, with each of his sons joining him as they became old enough, Jack – with the help of Gordon and Barry, who both joined the family business from leaving school – decorated most parts of Kenilworth Road at some stage and became a regular sponsor as well as supporter.
Then-chairman David Kohler invited him to become a Vice President around two decades ago, and Jack has been a friendly fixture in the boardroom on matchdays ever since.
In a speech he made halfway through his year as The High Sheriff of Bedfordshire in 2012, which was followed by appointment as Deputy Lieutenant of the County the following year, Jack said: “I am a supporter of Luton Town Football Club and have been ever since I arrived in the town. I have been through all the divisions, down and up, and all the way back down to the Blue Square Conference, watching some fantastic football over the years.”
In one of his proudest moments, Jack was awarded the MBE by Her Majesty for his work raising funds for charities in and around Luton. He had joined the Rotary Club in 1981 as he believed it would help him give something back to the community in which he had made his home and built his business.
After his wife Betty died of bowel cancer in 1986, Jack met his second wife Lyn in the fundraising office of Luton & South Beds Hospice in 1987 and over the next 20 years helped raise £2.3m for the charity now known as Keech Hospice, having been a board director forming a committee to start the Hospice Lottery and the trading company, which had grown from one shop to ten by the time he left in 2009.
Also in 1986, he co-founded the Signpost Hostel for Homeless project. He soon became chairman of the charity and in 11 years watched it grow from one building looking after 18 residents with a staff team of six, to 11 units providing beds for 103 clients, with 48 staff.
“I felt so proud having had the experience of being homeless – albeit self-inflicted – that I was able to help those less fortunate for all kinds of reasons,” Jack said.
In his 35 years as a Rotarian – serving as president in 1992-93 – Jack organised events raising over £300,000 and received the Paul Harris Fellow award, the Four Avenues of Service Citation, the High Sheriff of Bedfordshire Award for Services to the Community, and carried the Commonwealth Games baton through Luton in 2002. Other honours include being made a Perth Guildryman in his native Scotland in 2001, and an Honorary Doctor of Business Administration by the University of Bedfordshire in 2014.
In death, his legacy will live on in the day-to-day working of Luton Town FC with his business, now run by sons Gordon and Barry, currently working on the glazing and decorating of the buildings at the Hatters’ new training ground, The Brache.
“Dad knew he only had a few months to live and one of the things that he missed most in the last few months was not being able to come to games, but it was just too much for him with the wheelchair and the cold,” said Gordon.
“I was keeping him fully informed on how the lads had been playing and even though he couldn’t speak from Christmas onwards, he understood everything – he’d even been selling tables and organising everything for a boxing event organised with Lewsey Boxing Club from his bed in the last few weeks!
“He laughed a couple of months ago when I said to him that I bet the club would put a little bit in the programme and give him a round of applause when he died. He’d have loved the tribute on Saturday, just like he loved every Saturday he spent at Kenilworth Road.”
Jack’s funeral will take place on Friday 10th March at St Mary’s Church in Luton, 11.30am.
The family have asked for family flowers only, with any donations made towards Keech Hospice via www.memorygiving.com (Nevilles Funeral Services, on behalf of Keech Hospice, search Jack Sapsworth) or on the day.
Rest In Peace, Jack.