MELISSA — Duke Sparks has known pinnacle success and unspeakable loss. As an educator, he’s led one of the state’s largest high schools and also shepherded a small-town elementary school. As a coach, he’s directed football squads of equally diverse size and scope. His lengthy resume also includes director of football of operations at a Division I university. Through it all, after 47 years in the arena, Sparks, 69, has somehow managed to maintain a balance and a love for life that is often contagious — and always evident. It shows when he simply greets someone, as the exchange invariably includes a hug or a pat on the back, and a smile.
And he’ll tell you a large part of what motivates and sustains him is his faith in God.
These days, Sparks is Melissa ISD’s director of football operations and community partnerships, a position he’s held for a year since serving as an assistant principal at both Melissa High and Melissa Middle Schools.
In his office within Melissa ISD Stadium’s well-appointed press box, Sparks goes about his duties with his long-trusted tools, a computer and a phone, surrounded by images of his family as well as posted notes and artwork from students. In truth, though, the most effective tools he possesses are within himself: a friendly enthusiasm for his work and a love of kids, and those who teach kids, that seems to transcend any worries of the day.
“I get my energy from kids,” Sparks said. “I absorb energy from kids and people that work with kids. That’s where I get my intent and my purpose.”
Melissa ISD Superintendent Keith Murphy has seen it and clearly appreciates it.
“Melissa schools are blessed to have Duke Sparks,” he said. “Everybody in the district loves him. He has been in the business for a lot of years and has a lot of experience. He brings a tremendous amount of wisdom and passion — and compassion — for our students and families.”
Claude Webb, girls athletic director at Melissa High, echoed these sentiments.
“When you hear the name, Duke Sparks, you immediately think of relationships,” he said. “Everything Duke does comes from a love of people and his desire to help people succeed. Duke sees the good in every person and never dwells on the negatives. He has endured plenty of setbacks in his life by remaining positive and never giving up. … There’s not an administrator, teacher or coach in Melissa that doesn’t value Duke’s opinion.”
Sparks has known he wanted to be a coach and an educator since he was a student at Bowie Jr. High in Beaumont.
“Coaches met a need in my life at (age) 12, 13, and I knew I wanted to be like them,” he said. “… I wanted to be the guy that touched lives. I wanted to be the guy that gave people hope. I wanted to be the guy who gave to kids what was given to me.”
Fresh out of Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Sparks started his teaching/coaching career at that same Bowie Jr. High, called there by one of his coaching mentors. From there, Sparks’s path included stops in Clarksville, Crosby, Denison, Mesquite and Terrell.
In 1997, while principal at Terrell High School, Sparks was coaxed to Allen by his good friend Todd Graham at the peak of Allen ISD’s immense change and growth. Graham was Allen High’s head football coach and athletic director at the time. When Sparks arrived, an enormous new high school was in the works and two years later, as principal, he led the move into the new facility. He said his experience in that massive, complex setting proved valuable and exhilarating.
Sparks retired as Allen principal in 2000, but stayed on with the district in another capacity for three-plus more years.
“Give me a computer and give me a telephone,” Sparks recalled proposing to AISD’s superintendent, “and any angry people that call, send them to me. … It blossomed into a really, really fun job. One of the gifts God gave me is conflict resolution. I like that and I’m able to do that.”
When the position eventually shifted toward curriculum, Sparks made a move.
“That is not my deal,” he said. “People are my deal.”
He became principal at Van Alstyne Elementary School in 2004.
“It’s one of the greatest experiences of my life,” Sparks said. “I got 500 hugs and 200 high-fives a day.”
Graham called on Sparks again in 2006, when Graham became head coach at Rice University. Sparks and his wife Sue were soon headed to Houston.
“Let me tell you, buddy, being director of football operations at a Division I college, especially Rice University … what a thrill,” Sparks said.
Rice went to its first bowl game in 45 years that year. Graham then left for Tulsa and Sparks decided to return to Van Alstyne, this time as the high school assistant principal and eventually principal.
Sparks became a bit emotional recalling this move — and what would come years later.
“It was hard at the time,” he says, “but it was a great blessing because I got to spend the next nine years with my grandkids.”
In 2011, after enjoyable years in Van Alstyne, Sparks again felt the need for change. What attracted him to Melissa? “Almost everything,” he said, before noting a specific draw: “I saw Melissa as the next Allen. … Here’s the thing I’ve learned over all these years: Change means growth and growth means change.”
He said he’s had a “love affair” with Melissa since arriving, just as he did at Van Alstyne. Sparks addws that being a part of Melissa ISD when its new high school opens in 2018 will be another “pinnacle” moment in his career.
“It’s just an exciting, exciting time and an amazing place,” he said.
Despair to hope
In July, Sparks and Sue will mark 46 years of marriage. They have two grown daughters, Kori Sparks of Melissa and Karen Sparks of McKinney. On Nov. 1, 2015, Sparks and his family faced unimaginable tragedy when Karen’s children, Reagan Small, 9, and Grant Small, 8, were killed in a fire set by their father at their home in Van Alstyne.
“I don’t dwell on it,” Sparks said, “but that’s who we are now. That’s what we deal with on a daily basis.”
He said well-meaning, loving people have told him things will get better, that the pain will go away — but of course, it doesn’t.
Sparks said he’s found wisdom in the words of Angela Miller’s blog “A Bed For My Heart,” where she posits that pain-and-love/love-and-pain go together — that as long as you love, there will be pain. Working toward a balance there, she says, comes through a relationship with Jesus Christ.
He’s also found that the words of Betsie ten Boom, who died in a Nazi prison in 1944, to be the “crux” of what gets him and his family through these days.
“There is no pit so deep that his love doesn’t go deeper still,” Sparks said. “… Now, I want you to know, for the last 19 months — and for the next 19-plus years that I live on this earth — that’s the way it is. And that lifts me every day.”
He said the people of Van Alstyne, Melissa, Anna and surrounding communities have supported his family in an amazing way.
“They know our story, they hurt with us, they reach out to us,” he said.
One way Sparks honors his grandchildren’s memory is through his clothing. Grant was a huge TCU fan and Reagan loved Texas A&M. On the first of each month, Sparks alternates wearing one of these school’s shirts and he wears the other on the second.
“What’s amazing about Duke is his heart,” Murphy said. “His heart has always stayed so pure. Even in the darkest moments, he’s truly who he says he is. He is a genuine human being, led by faith.”
So how much longer does Sparks hope to carry out these duties he so enjoys?
“I’m going to do this as long as they’ll let me and as long as I’m standing,” he said, “because this is what I do.”
Of course, Sparks has been around oceans of children over the years and observed their habits, their changing ways.
“There’s always that core of what a kid is, what a teenager is,” he said. “But the thing that probably concerns me most about kids today is their lack of personal interaction,” referring to an almost constant devotion to phones and social media. Sparks said he’d like to see today’s students “see, feel and touch” more “with their hearts.”
He’d never admit it, but perhaps they’ll find no finer example of this to emulate than him.