Columbus' beloved 'dancing guy,' known for brightening up local festivals, has died

Holly Zachariah Doral Chenoweth
The Columbus Dispatch
Robert Spriggs, also known as Babachu Spriggs, dances to the music during the Jazz & Rib Fest at the Bicentennial Park stage in 2007.

Every year, whether in the pouring rain or under a blazing June sun, somewhere out there in the middle of the mass of bodies at the free-wheeling, free-spirited party that is ComFest at Goodale Park, Robert “Babachu” Spriggs could always be found putting on a show.

Turquoise rings on his fingers, silver chains dangling around his neck, often shirtless, always with a smile, this man who was a professionally trained dancer and choreographer who grew up in upstate New York somehow decades ago melded into the Columbus homeless community and sang and danced his way into the hearts of everyone he met.

“At the ComFest he would be there dancing and entertaining people, and people in the crowd would always say ‘Who that man is? Who that man is? And I would just laugh and say dramatically, 'His name is Babachu,'” recalled Solomon Dean, the longtime deputy director of day services at the city’s Open Shelter, where Spriggs sometimes stayed. “He was a fixture. There's no one else like him.”

So it was with profound sadness that word spread through both the locals arts and homeless communities recently that Spriggs had died.

Although the circumstances of his death are unclear, Dean thinks Spriggs died Feb. 25. Public records show his age as 81.

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Jerry Pierce, bishop of the Miracle Cathedral, City of Mercy on the Near East Side, said Spriggs died outside during the heavy snow and cold snap. The Franklin County coroner’s office had no record of his death, however.

Advocates and friends will host a memorial service for Spriggs, whom Pierce said had seven brothers and two sisters, tonight at 6 at Miracle Cathedral, 2271 E. Fifth Ave. All are welcome.

Circumstances of Spriggs death aside, all that matters is that a man who brought light to so many in moments of darkness is gone, said Marla Tomastik Clark, executive director of administration and finance at St. John’s United Church of Christ on East Mound St., Downtown, a place where Spriggs was well-known and loved.

“Babachu was absolutely full of grace,” Tomastik Clark said. “He was in need but you never knew that. He was just always so super giving. He was so loving and kind and we were just always so tickled when he showed up.”

Pre-pandemic, Spriggs was a regular at the church’s casual Wednesday service and for the weekly meal at “The Largest Table,” where at least 150 from the local unhoused population would enjoy fellowship and break bread together.

Spriggs generally sang the opening prayer, as he often did wherever he went.

Pierce said he first met Spriggs nearly 25 years ago when Pierce worked at the Open Shelter and Spriggs was a resident. Pierce remembers cleaning time at the shelter, when he would crank up music and "Babachu would grab a mop and just dance with it" to clean the floor.

“Columbus respects him and loves him" Pierce said.

Tomastik Clark has only been with St. John’s a few years, but she knew Spriggs many years before that because her husband is a musician (Phil Clark, from Hoodoo Soul Band and other gigs) who often sang and danced with Spriggs at ComFest.

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Michael Doody, who was for years head of safety at ComFest and is a longtime emcee, said that Spriggs embodied everything that the popular and age-old community festival stands for.

Its stated guiding principles include statements such as how "people ought to work for the collective good of all people rather than for personal gain" and "The basic necessities of life are a right and not a privilege. People have the collective right to control the conditions of their lives."

Spriggs so often danced right in front of the stage were Doody emceed.

"He was one of the central figures for decades at ComFest ... He danced truly like nobody was looking. He personified ComFest," said Doody, who only learned of Spriggs' death this afternoon. "Here’s a guy who touched so many lives — yet he was homeless. If there was a saint of ComFes, he was it. You could call him Saint Bobachu. He will be sorely missed. ”

But that was far from the only festival Spriggs attended. He was equally a fixture at the Jazz & Rib Fest Downtown — or anywhere there was a party and music.

His voice was beautiful, Tomastik Clark said, and people would always stop and listen when he sang.

The pandemic, of course, has been hard on everyone and the homeless community certainly has felt that as meals sites switched to to-go only and places to stay either became difficult to find or were too risky.

So in recent months, the folks at St. John’s had kind of last track of Spriggs, Tomastik Clark said, though he would show up maybe once a month for the to-go meal. But no one was worried, she said. Spriggs always seemed to have a place to go and always had someone to take care of him. And he knew how to take care of himself.

"He wasn’t just someone that we served," she said. "He was so great at connecting with anyone, and the outreach he did to others changed lives."

Which makes his death seem all the more sad, she said.

“The whole community is heartbroken,” she said. “He was such a joy.”

hzachariah@dispatch.com

@hollyzachariah