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Face to face with the Sparks legacy

Steve CharlesEven with all of our photographs and stories from practically every spot on campus during the Big Bash Reunion Weekend, we still missed many important moments.

One such moment occurred in the College’s Archives, which is open during reunions. Many alums make their way down the library stairs and through the golden doors to peruse old yearbooks or editions of The Bachelor from their time at the College. But with our activist archivist Beth Swift around, more surprising connections are often made.

At this year’s Big Bash, descendants of the College’s ninth president, Frank Sparks, came face to face with their heritage. Beth describes the moment here:

There were two women with two young men who were about the age of our students. The older of the two women introduced the group by saying that she was Frank Hugh Sparks’ granddaughter, the other woman was his great granddaughter and the two young men were his great-great grandsons.

What a delight they were!

I was so tickled to meet them and to share a bit of the Wabash history surrounding Sparks and the numerous ways he nurtured this small college. In our reading room we have a handsome Sparks portrait, a bronze bust, and an Arvin radio that President Sparks gave a former student as a wedding present.

They seemed thrilled to see these tangible traces of their ancestor. One of the young men posed beside the portrait for a picture.

We spoke of the granddaughter’s visits to Caleb Mills House during her childhood to stay with her grandfather. I mentioned the episode of television’s “This is Your Life” with Ralph Edwards which featured President Sparks. She answered that she was, in fact, one of the small children on that stage. I asked if it was intimidating being on that stage, on television. She said it was, a little, but it was reassuring that her family was there, especially her grandfather. She spoke about feeling unsure and climbing on his lap; as she said it there was deep warmth in her tone. She laughed and said that although she had always understood that he was an important person, to her Frank Hugh Sparks was simply her granddad.

She gave me a box of items for the Archives, and the first item I saw was a reprint from the Reader’s Digest of April 1947. The article was, “The Man with the Big Idea.” It talked about Frank Hugh Sparks’ rise from humble beginnings to big business success to the presidency of Wabash. The “Big Idea” was about education and how it would “help to sustain self-determination of free citizens.”

As I opened the box, I was standing not two feet from a set of beautiful sketches by Klaus Wolff ’50, donated by Gene McCormick ’49 but with their own connection to Frank Sparks.

The story of Klaus Wolff is an amazing Wabash tale. Wolff was a soldier in the German army and was held as a POW in North Africa during WWII. Following the war, he was headed to the American zone in Germany to find work when his mother handed him a magazine to read on the train. It was that same issue of Reader’s Digest—April 1947—that featured Frank Sparks. Wolff read the article and was so inspired that he wrote to Sparks. In a typical Sparks move, Wolff was offered free tuition to Wabash. The other expenses of his education were covered by friends of the college. Everything was paid except the day to day pocket money a student needed in that era. For this money Wolff produced sketches which he sold to fellow students. Dr. McCormick paid $2.50 for these lovely sketches. Wolff studied economics under Ben Rogge, married a girl from DePauw, and went on to graduate school. He obtained his PhD and taught economics for many years at Middlebury College in Vermont.

The story of Klaus Wolff is about a gift from Frank Sparks to a student, but as I told it that morning, the story became a gift from Wabash to the Sparks family. It was a lovely moment and, for that brief time, Frank Hugh Sparks was real and present, here in the Archives.—Beth Swift

In photo: Frank Sparks, ninth president of Wabash.