George Sparks was a friend, a husband and the dean of the college of visual and performing arts. If he were still alive today, he wouldn’t stand to be the main subject of a story. He always lifted others up and tried with all his might to stay out of the spotlight — everyone else deserved it.
He was the first one to show up and the last to leave. Sparks made his mark at Madison in many ways with many people.
For Wren Stevens, director of the Madison Art Collection, Sparks was memorable from the moment she met him. In a snowstorm over a decade ago, Stevens interviewed Sparks for the role of dean of CVPA. Despite the day’s schedule being thrown out the window, Stevens said Sparks remained calm and levelheaded.
“I knew from the moment I met him that he was such a kind and gentle soul,” Stevens said. “I was so happy to have heard that the search committee picked him, and that he accepted us and would be, again, this huge part of my professional life for the next decade.”
Former interim dean of CVPA, Marilou Johnson, was involved in Sparks’ hiring process. She said working with Sparks was the most “influential and transformational period” for her at JMU.
While Sparks worked at JMU, Johnson said the biggest project they worked on together was the creation of the Forbes Center. For about two years, Johnson said, their lives were consumed with spreadsheets and construction drawings. But through it all, Sparks’ intentions were to better the education of the students.
“It wasn’t about George,” Johnson said. “It was about everyone else.”
Johnson and Sparks later hired Regan Byrne as the executive director of the Forbes Center. Byrne, who formerly worked on Broadway, said she knew the moment she met Sparks that JMU was the “right place” for her.
“There was no doubt in my mind that he was truly one of a kind,” Byrne said.
As the years went on, one thing remained constant for CVPA: Sparks. He became Stevens’ mentor. He always checked in, Stevens said, and even encouraged her to apply for tenure. Now, Stevens is tenured and attributes this accomplishment entirely to Sparks.
“That was completely his doing,” Stevens said. “He shepherded me through the process. I can't say enough about him.”
When Sparks wasn’t mentoring, he was cheering others on.
Raiquan Thomas (’19) said he met Sparks when he auditioned to join the college of visual and performing arts. It was 2014. Thomas, a Black male, auditioned by singing opera. At first, he was hesitant if he’d fit in at the predominantly white institution. Right away, Thomas said, Sparks was “so welcoming” to him.
After Thomas committed to JMU, Sparks officially became his cheerleader. With every passing in the hallway, Thomas said Sparks would go out of his way to chat. From talking books to telling Thomas how proud he was of him, Sparks played a crucial role in his journey at JMU.
“[He] made me feel inspired,” Thomas said. “He would always come to the office and tell me how amazing I did.”
But behind the scenes, the cheerleader that CVPA knew had his own cheerleader. Sheryl Gifford, Sparks’ wife, said she was always proud of his accomplishments. The two, who met in the early 2000s, worked in academia. Despite the 13 hours from FAU to JMU, Gifford said she was elated when Sparks was hired as dean.
“Even though it was tough being apart ... it made me happier to know that he was doing what he was good at — something that he felt fulfilled at because I could not have reconciled kind of saying, ‘Well no, stay and you won't be able to do what I know you're really great at.’”
Students weren’t the only people that Sparks cheered for.
Stevens said that Sparks went out of his way to check in with the rest of the “team.” Their offices were in the same suite in the Forbes Center, and Stevens said it’d only take him about 30 minutes every morning after she arrived to sit down and ask how she was doing.
“He focused on people as people first,” Stevens said. “Before he wanted to talk about anything else, he wanted to know how I was.”
After 12 years at JMU, Sparks retired at the age of 70 in June. Johnson said that CVPA has a strong foundation because of Sparks’ passion and drive.
“They will continue and advance without George,” Johnson said. “Because of George.”
Contact Katelyn Waltemyer at email@example.com. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.