ALUMNI PROFILE: Sheldon Sperling (J.D. ’79)

Thursday, March 25, 2010

by Roy Tucker (J.D. '03)

Sheldon SperlingWith the authority to invoke prosecutions in the name of the United States, Sheldon J. Sperling, known affectionately as “Shelly” to his friends, turns to glance at a photograph hanging in his Muskogee office. The photograph of a severely mangled automobile, while likely unnoticed by the uninformed observer, becomes central among the many hanging commendations and portraits of past and present government officials when Sperling explains its significance. He tells the tale of the 1991 vehicle accident from which he walked away. He said he keeps the photo close as a daily reminder to “choose joy.” 

Sperling is a 1979 graduate of The University of Tulsa College of Law and currently serves as the United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Oklahoma. He has held this top-level position since being appointed by President George W. Bush in 2001, and confirmed the same year. 

Moments after meeting him, Sperling’s remarkable intellect and warm demeanor are apparent. It is not until he begins to tell war stories of his days as an assistant district attorney for Wagoner, Adair, and Sequoyah counties that it becomes apparent he also is an aggressive prosecutor who takes the job very seriously. During his days as an ADA, Sperling prosecuted the 1983 murder of Loretta Medlock, his first death penalty case. During closing arguments, he held up a bloody nightgown and invited the jury to wait with him in silence for two minutes, the time it took the victim to bleed to death. Sperling won a conviction.

After leaving the DA’s office in 1985, Sperling served as an Assistant U.S. Attorney, ascending to the position of First Assistant U.S. Attorney and Chief of the Criminal Division in 1989, a position he held until being appointed interim U.S. Attorney in 2000. Sperling is unapologetic when he describes many of the high profile cases he contributed to over the last decade, from the prosecutions of Oklahoma political legend Gene Stipe and State Auditor Jeff McMahan, to Hollis Roberts, Chief of the Choctaw Nation.

It is obvious from his deportment that Sperling enjoys his career, and he is quick to explain that his service is much more than a job to him.

He manages a 32-person staff: 13 assistant U.S. attorneys and 19 support personnel. He takes the hiring of all staff very seriously, believing that there are five critical factors a job applicant must possess to work in his office. Likely an influence from his prelaw days as a headhunter, Sperling developed the five-factor recruitment process which he uses for all hires. These factors – character, work ethic, know-how, interpersonal skills and a servant’s heart – are all decisive. Sperling says that an employer cannot hire someone and expect them to change, claiming that many of the factors are inherent and cannot be taught. 

When asked what he plans to do if he is replaced by a Democratic nominee of President Barack Obama, Sperling smiles and says, “I don’t know, yet.”

If he leaves his post, his fervent wish is that he not be missed, because “that means I’ve done my job.” It is a reference to the importance of his hiring decisions, which are, and will be, his most important legacy.

Sperling grew up in the town of Moundridge, Kansas approximately 40 miles northwest of Wichita and is the fourth of five sons. He regales his upbringing and describes his hometown as a place populated with a self-sufficient, hearty breed of people.

Sperling and his wife, Marvetta, are the parents of two grown sons and a 14-month old granddaughter named Kate.

In his limited spare time, Sperling is an avid reader. He prefers topics on self-improvement, current events, and religion. Sperling’s latest read is John Ortberg’s If You Want To Walk On Water, You’ve Got To Get Out of the Boat

Jimmy Hart