In the early days of World War II, Thomas E. Sparling, then a 25-year-old electrical engineer at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, tried to enlist in the Navy. "The admiral in the...

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In the early days of World War II, Thomas E. Sparling, then a 25-year-old electrical engineer at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, tried to enlist in the Navy.

“The admiral in the shipyard blocked him because he was so valuable as a civilian employee,” said his son, Don Sparling of Seattle.

So Mr. Sparling spent the rest of the war directing the installation of shipboard radar systems, a technology so new and secret that he took key components home in his briefcase at night for safekeeping, his son said.

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In a six-decade career that followed, Mr. Sparling became one of the world’s leading electrical engineers, known for the reliability of both his designs and his character. He co-founded and headed Seattle-based Sparling, the largest electrical-engineering and technology-consulting firm in the country. And he designed control systems for many of the region’s transportation landmarks, including the drawbridges on the Canal and Evergreen Point floating bridges.

Mr. Sparling died Dec. 5 in Phoenix of complications from a heart attack. He was 87.

“He loved solving the difficult electrical-engineering problems ” said Jim Duncan, the current CEO of Sparling. “He was an innovator.”

Mr. Sparling was born July 6, 1917, in Stanley, Wis., and grew up in Flaxville, Mont.

His father ran the local hardware store, and a young Mr. Sparling took advantage of the store’s electrical inventory.

“He liked building radios and tearing them apart,” said his wife, Dorothy, of Freeland, Island County. “That would make his mother mad, because [back then] if you built something, you didn’t tear it up.”

After high school, Mr. Sparling attended Northern Montana State College and earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Montana State University in 1939.

After the war, in 1947, Mr. Sparling co-founded the Pavey and Sparling electrical-engineering company now known as Sparling. The company employs 130 people in Seattle and Portland.

In addition to controls for the floating bridges, Mr. Sparling designed the access gates for the Interstate 5 express lanes in Seattle. In an era before computers, making a freeway gate “automatic” was far from a small accomplishment, Duncan said.

Later in his career, Mr. Sparling helped rewrite the national electrical code to make retrofitting electrical systems in buildings safer and less costly. He edited two major electrical-engineering reference books. And he received several national awards for contributions to the profession.

While Mr. Sparling was famous for his devotion to his work, he was equally renowned for his on-the-job kindness.

“Whatever he was doing, you could walk into his office and he would drop everything and help you,” Duncan said.

Mr. Sparling retired from his company in 1985, and he and his wife moved from Seattle to Whidbey Island in 1988. But Mr. Sparling remained active in national and international trade organizations until recently.

“He was a person who loved engineering,” his wife said.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Sparling is survived by a daughter, Susan Riggs of Whidbey Island; three sons: Jim of Whidbey Island, Don of Seattle, and Bob of Lake Forest Park; 13 grandchildren; and 12 great-grandchildren.

A memorial service is set for 1 p.m. Saturday at the Useless Bay Golf and Country Club, 5725 South Country Club Road, Langley, Whidbey Island. Remembrances may be made to a Thomas Sparling Memorial at Montana State University, MSU Foundation, 1501 S. 11th, P.O. Box 2750, Bozeman, Montana 59717-2750, or to a favorite charity.

Jim Downing: 206-515-5627 or jdowning@seattletimes.com