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Story of Chilant Sprague

By Mark Lewis, Ojai Valley Hospital Foundation Board Member

Like many Ojai retirees, Chilant Sprague in her later years found herself visiting the Ojai hospital’s emergency room from time to time. On at least one occasion, Chilant was the patient, but usually it was her husband, Mansfield D. Sprague.

“He was in the ER quite a few times,” recalls Barbara Pops, who — along with her husband, Dr. Martin Pops — was good friends with Manny and Chilant.

Chilant appreciated the convenience of not having to drive Manny all the way to Ventura, but she was dismayed by the relatively primitive conditions they encountered in Ojai’s ER. This was back in the early 2000s, when the ER consisted of three gurneys separated by curtains, with little privacy for patients, and limited space for waiting areas and first-class medical equipment.

“The old emergency room was a mess,” Dr. Pops recalls.

It didn’t stay that way for long, thanks to Chilant. Her $500,000 gift in 2006 helped transform the dowdy old ER into a full-fledged modern Emergency Department — and her subsequent gift setting up a $3 million endowment for the department has kept it in top-grade shape ever since.

“Her endowment is the single most important contribution that the Ojai hospital has ever received,” Dr. Pops says.

Chilant Sprague is well remembered in Ojai as a charming, socially prominent grand dame of the East End, the sort of person who writes big checks to her favorite charities without giving it a second thought. But Chilant was not to the manner born. She did not inherit her millions, she earned them herself, using her brains.

Mary Chilant Costa was born in Michigan around 1914, the first child of Nick and Adeline Costa, recently arrived immigrants from Italy. Nick soon moved his family to Santa Barbara, where he worked as a gardener on a Montecito estate. Chilant and her younger brother grew up on the edges of that rarefied world, although they were on the outside looking in.

Making the most of her opportunities, Chilant attended Santa Barbara State College (now UCSB) and later transferred to UCLA, where she graduated in June 1937 with a bachelor of education degree. She passed the next six years as an elementary school teacher, first in Santa Barbara and later in San Bernardino, where she met Ernest H. Frenzell of the Army Corps of Engineers. They married in 1943, and a year later Chilant gave birth to Herbert Frenzell. He would be their only child.

After the war, the family settled in Sacramento, where Chilant Frenzell returned to work as a school district administrator with a particular focus on special education. In her spare time, she focused on the stock market. Every time she got paid by her employer, she would set aside money to invest. And she turned out to have a keen eye for picking winners, such as IBM.

“From every paycheck she would buy stock, and that’s how she built her wealth,” says Debora F. Mock of Wells Fargo Advisors, who was Chilant’s financial advisor in later years.

Ernest Frenzell died in 1964, leaving Chilant a widow at 40. Her son, Herb, was in college at the time, but in 1966 he was drafted into the Army and sent to Vietnam. On June 26, 1967, he was on patrol with his infantry platoon in Binh Tuy Province when they were ambushed by the Viet Cong. Herb exposed himself to enemy fire so he could cover his buddies’ retreat to safety, and as a result he was fatally shot. He was 22 years old.

Herb’s friend Billy C. Jones of Oklahoma carried his body through the jungle for two hours as the embattled platoon fought to reach a clearing where helicopters could land and evacuate them. When they finally got to the clearing, Jones too was killed. Posthumously, both Billy and Herb were awarded the Silver Star for gallantry. Their names can be found next to one another on the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C. Herb is buried nearby in Arlington National Cemetery.

“Herb would have given his life for his friends anywhere,” Chilant said, as quoted by a veterans’ website. “It could have been while he was swimming or water-skiing. He was not the kind of person who would stand by and watch something tragic happen to others. It just so happened that he was in combat when he was called to help his friends.”

“A tragedy,” Barbara Pops says. “Her only child.”

Heartbroken, Chilant took a leave of absence from her school-administration job in Sacramento. It does not appear that she ever went back. But at some point in the next few years, she crossed paths with Manny Sprague, and life took a turn for the better.

“She met Manny in the garden of the Ritz Hotel in Paris, and they fell in love,” Dr. Pops says.

Manny was born in Bridgeport, Conn., in 1910, the son of a prominent local doctor. After he graduated from Dartmouth and Yale Law School, Manny and his first wife had two kids, and he served in the Navy in the Pacific during World War II. Postwar, he alternated among jobs in government, politics and business, including a term as speaker of the Connecticut House of Representatives, and another as assistant secretary of defense under President Dwight D. Eisenhower, whom Manny counted as a friend. He also served briefly in the Ford Administration in the mid ‘70s — but by that point Manny had married Chilant, and she apparently wanted to return to her roots in Southern California.

After Manny retired, he and Chilant moved to Ojai in the fall of 1978. Ojai was close to Chilant’s childhood hometown of Santa Barbara, but presumably not so close that anyone here remembered her as the gardener’s daughter.

Chilant and Manny took Ojai by storm. She was charming; he was curmudgeonly, but in an interesting way. Between them, they soon were deeply entrenched in all the major local charitable enterprises: the Ojai Civic Association; the Ojai Tennis Tournament; the Ojai Music Festival; the Ojai Valley Land Conservancy; the successful campaign to create Cluff Park; a less-successful campaign to unify the entire valley into one political unit.

“He was a guy who got things done,” Dr. Pops says.

The Spragues also supported the Ojai Hospital Foundation, after a local committee of civic-minded citizens bought the hospital from its for-profit owner in 2000. (Five years later, it merged with Community Memorial Healthcare in Ventura.)

Manny and Chilant lived on Rugby Road in the East End, in a classic Mid-Century Modern house designed by the noted Ojai architect Rodney Walker. And the world, or at least the Ojai Valley, beat a path to their door.

“They were both characters,” Barbara says. “Their parties were legendary.”

These affairs ranged in size from Chilant’s annual Kentucky Derby blow-outs to smaller dinner parties.

“She loved to cook,” Dr. Pops says. “Inevitably it was Italian food.”

As the years passed, Manny (who was 5 years older than Chilant) became a regular customer at the Ojai emergency room. But when he finally passed at the age of 95 in March 2006, he did so at home rather than in a hospital bed.

Chilant herself was now in her 90s. But she didn’t slow down much.

“She went out every day socializing, for lunch or playing cards,” Debora Mock says. “She kept herself busy.”

Not all her energies were devoted to social life. She also was thinking about the legacy she would leave behind when she died. Thanks to her shrewd stock-picking in earlier years, she had a large personal fortune to dispose of in ways that would serve the community.

Chilant knew from personal experience that Ojai’s local ER was a sub-par facility. A new, upgraded and expanded ER would cost more than $1 million. Here was Chilant’s opportunity to do some good. In August 2006, she announced a $500,000 gift in Manny’s name, as seed money for a new ER for Ojai.

“I’m very devoted to this community,” Chilant told the Ventura County Star, “and I feel we need something a little bit more. Every time anybody goes to the ER, we see some problems… It’s just too small.”

After Chilant got the ball rolling, Community Memorial picked up the rest of the million-dollar-plus tab, “so now we have a very modern, good-looking emergency room,” Dr. Pops says.

Construction soon began on the new facility, which would double in size to six beds, separated from each other to allow patients plenty of privacy. There would also be a larger waiting room and plenty of space for upgraded, cutting-edge equipment. But Chilant was not done yet.

What good would a shiny new ER facility be, if the hospital could not afford to staff it adequately? After all, physicians don’t come cheap. As it happens, Chilant had $3 million parked in a trust which she originally intended to benefit a large Southern California teaching hospital. She had named it to honor Manny and her long-lost only child, Herbert Frenzell. Now, she altered the trust “so that the Ojai hospital was the main beneficiary,” Mock says.

More specifically, the ER was the main beneficiary. Chilant decided to endow Ojai’s new Emergency Department in perpetuity with the proceeds from the Chilant and Mansfield Sprague/Herbert Frenzell Trust, of which Mock is the Executor and Martin and Barbara Pops are the trustees. Among other things, the Sprague/Frenzell Trust helps to underwrite the ER’s staffing costs.

Chilant did not live to see the new facility completed. She died at home in August 2008 at the age of 94.

“Ojai lost one of its beloved characters and philanthropists with the passing of Chilant Sprague,” then-editor Bret Bradigan wrote in theOjai Valley News. “Known for her kindness and fiery wit, Sprague was also a patron of all things Ojai, generating money and attention, especially for the Ojai Valley Community Hospital Foundation.”

The new Ojai ER opened in the fall of 2009, and it is Chilant’s monument.

“She wanted a legacy,” Mock says, “and she wanted to inspire other people to follow her example.”