The late Elvis Presley recorded the country western hit, “Ghetto,” almost a century after the words applied to another Illinois family — the Ernest Sparks family. The words of the song, “On a cold and gray December morn, a poor little baby boy was born — in the Ghetto,” referred to poverty stricken families who could not escape the privation of the inner city ghetto.
The Sparks family had their first born, a little boy named Walter, while living in the swamps near the Mississippi River; they lived in a one room shack — with a dirt floor. With no money, no neighbors, no help, no doctor, no cow, and with Mother Sparks unable to breast feed little Walter, he died when barely six weeks old. This was before the turn into the twentieth century. The death was attributed to malady called “Bold Hives” — a catch-all cause of death when the real cause was in doubt. Little Walter’s brother, Sherman Paul Sparks, would many years later, attribute the death to malnutrition, or simply stated — starvation! That same Sherman Sparks would later, as Dr. Sherman P. Sparks, make a solemn vow that no one within his reach, or ability would ever be without medical care simply because they couldn’t pay for it. The infant death may have been the catalyst that propelled three generations into the practice of medicine and the art of healing.
Both Ernest Sparks and his wife, Nancy, were later to become physicians, as did their sons, Sherman and Earl. Then two of Dr. Sherman Sparks’ sons (Ernest’s grandsons), Dr. Randy Sparks and Dr. Bobby Sparks, were to follow in the same medical footsteps.
Born on the 23rd day of January, 1909, about three miles west of Toledo, Illinois, Sherman Sparks and his brother, Earl, received their early tutoring in a one-room schoolhouse about a mile from their home.
Sherman remembers that there were three students in his first grade class. On the first day of school each was requested to write his name on the blackboard. Sherman did so — and promptly returned to his seat. The other two struggled and wrote and re-wrote their names for several minutes. When the teacher asked young Sherman why he had been so quick to write his name and sit, he replied, “l wrote it the best I could the first time.”
Sherman finished high school at Urbana, llIinois, the twin city to Champaign — the home of the University of Illinois. He had four years of band under Ray Dvorak — later to be Dr. Ray Dvorak, close associate and confidant of the great John Philip Sousa. Dr. Dvorak is recognized as the first of the Band Directors to form the band members into letters, numbers, and for objects at half-time activities. This was done while Sherman was attending the University of Illinois, where he graduated in the year 1932.
For ten years Sherman was a teacher in the Illinois public school system. He taught science, coached the football team, and also was Band Director at Kincaid High School, then at Pesotum High, and finally at Mt. Clive, lilinois, and still possesses his lifetime teachers certificate. He was later to be one of eight science teachers in the United States, appointed by the National Education Agency, to select the material to be placed in the Science books used by all of the nation’s high schools. The sequence they set brought about the uniformity we have today for students who move from state to state.
When Sherman was studying for his Master’s Degree at Illinois University, he developed and perfected a Photo-Electric Turbidimeter, an instrument used to count bacteria instantaneously as they were being killed with a Bacteria-phage. The Bacteria-phage was used to fight bacteria prior to the discovery of Sulfa Drugs in the late thirties — and some ten or twelve years prior to the use of Penicillin.
The late Dr. Louis W. Sauer, of the University of Chicago Medical School, used Dr. Sparks’ Photo-Electric Turbidimeter to perfect the Whooping Cough vaccine — a remedy still in use today.
In June, 1942, Sherman entered the Kirksville School of Osteopathy and Surgery, at Kirksville, Missouri. He graduated in 1945 — in the top five per cent of the class.
Sherman’s first marriage ended in divorce in 1945. To this marriage a son, James Earl, was born. James is the owner and operator of a highly successful wholesale furniture business housed in the Dallas World Trade Center.
On February 20, 1946, Sherman and Billie June Wester were married, and then on July 4, 1946, after a year’s internship at the Sam Sparks Hospital in Dallas, the couple began their professional services. Here, they leased an office in the Cunningham Drug Store building, the present site of the Rockwall Drug. He remembers that his rent was a reasonable $35.00 per month. By this time the City of Rockwall was beginning to grow and plan.
Dr. Sparks had, on January 23, 1952, broken ground for a new clinic building — at about the same time Texas Aluminum Company, Inc. (now Howmet) had selected Rockwall as its corporate home — and the Rockwall Medical and Surgical Clinic and Hospital (now the Rockwall Nursing Home) were being built.
Dr. Sparks moved into his new facility at the corner of Rusk and First Streets. After the birth of two more sons, Randy and Bobby, a tragedy struck. An untimely death claimed the life of the very beautiful Billie June — leaving Sherman with the young sons.
Dr. Sparks carried on his practice, was active as a civic leader, generous with his Methodist Church, President of the Rockwall Centennial Association in 1954, was the first male president of the Rockwall PTA; was Band Booster Club President and civil defense coordinator for Rockwall County for many years. He is, still today, Mr. Republican of Rockwall County.
In 1964 the Republican Party sent the State Chairman to Rockwall to form a local Republican organization. Unable to locate an acceptable and acknowledged Republican, the State Chairman inquired about the matter at the local drug store. There he was told, “Go see that damn Yankee doctor Sherman Sparks.” It should be pointed out at this time that the “Yankee doctor” was the grandson of Bateman Sparks who had fought for the North in the Civil War under General Sherman, and that it was this great General for whom Sherman Sparks was named. Sherman told the State Chairman that he was an independent thinker and voter — that he voted for the best person — and not always just for one party. “But,” Dr. Sparks stated, “l have voted for Republicans for president all of my life.” The State Chairman said, “You will do.” And, so, Dr. Sparks held the first Republican Primary in Rockwall County in 1964 with eleven people voting in that Primary. In 1980 the Republican Primary had grown to over 700 Republican voters. The good Doctor married Joyce Marie Patterson on January 23, 1965, and to this union another fine son, David, was born. Theirs was a very happy, resourceful and compatible life until tragedy struck again. Joyce died on March 24, 1981. David, now 15 years old, and Dr. Sherman live at their residence at 224 Alta Vista Street, in Rockwall.
Sherman Sparks has seen his
eldest son, James Earl, reach the top of ladder in the business world; he has seen his sons, Dr. Randy and Dr. Bobby, follow in his footsteps as fine young men of medicine. He has seen them build the Rockwall Family Clinic adjacent to his original clinic; he has passed on to Dr. Randy the honored role as team physician for the Rockwall Yellow Jackets — a position Sherman filled for thirty years, he is enjoying his grandchildren, and he is watching David grow straight and true — in the Sparks’ tradition. It was a tradition first blazed by Dr. Sherman Sparks’ great-great-grandfather, Walter Sparks, who fought in the American Revolution, thereby qualifying Sherman for his membership in the Sons of the American Revolution.
No one has served better, and no one is more respected than that Yankee Doctor, Sherman Paul Sparks.
By James J. Hudson for Rockwall Historical Foundation‘s Rockwall County History.