A Bibb County high school principal died unexpectedly Monday after 26 years of working as an educator.
Kent Sparks, principal at Rutland High School, thought his acid reflux was getting worse. In a matter of days, he lost his appetite and energy.
He became so weak that even standing was a task, his wife, Misty Sparks, told The Telegraph.
At the hospital, Sparks learned acid reflux was not the true ailment.
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“His condition just deteriorated so quickly,” Misty Sparks said. “He had kidney failure, which we think could be linked to a malignant mass found in his abdomen. ... It was cancer of some sort, but we were not able to figure out exactly what kind it was.”
The 54-year-old was a respected leader and mentor, Bibb Schools Superintendent Curtis Jones said.
“One of his greatest strengths was rallying his school family through difficult times,” Jones said.
Sparks became principal at Riley Elementary School in 2013, the same year three students died in a house fire.
Sparks helped set up a fund to help pay for the funerals of 10-year-old Nykhiaya, 9-year-old Jamarrian and 7-year-old Daija Williams, who perished in the blaze less than a half mile from the school. The fund also helped pay for medical bills of 3-year-old child who survived.
In 2014, Sparks returned to Rutland High School as principal.
Tragedy struck his students last September, when senior soccer player Heather Harrod was killed in a car crash after leaving school.
During a candlelight vigil for Harrod, Sparks said he “can’t answer the question as to why this happened … All I can tell you is God loaned us Heather for 17 years, and loaned her to Rutland High School for the past a little over three years.”
Sparks was born in Nashville, Tennessee, and, according to his wife, he had “a rough childhood.”
He coached football for schools in Henry and Fulton counties before moving his family to Middle Georgia in 2002 to take a job coaching and teaching English for Mary Persons High School in Forsyth.
He was a stickler for good grammar, too.
In a 2005 Letter to the Editor of the Monroe County newspaper, Sparks professed that “using the proper grammar sends a strong message in your professional life. The message is that details matter and doing things properly is important to you and the company you represent.”
Few at Rutland High School have known Sparks longer than head custodian Beverly Harris, who has been working at the school since it was built 15 years ago.
“Yesterday I went and stood in (his office) and it was like a calmness in there,” Harris told The Telegraph on Tuesday. “He was special. ... He was down-to-earth. He didn’t ride your back. As long as you did what you were supposed to do, you didn’t have no problem from him.”
Sparks hardly ever smiled, “except for when he told a bad joke,” ROTC teacher and Chief Warrant Officer 3 Robert DeWitt said.
Students used to ask if DeWitt if Sparks was grumpy.
DeWitt would reply, “‘That’s his demeanor. ... He’s a grizzly bear on the outside but a teddy bear on the inside.”
Sparks was also fond of applying nautical analogies in his instruction to faculty.
A quote on a wall in Sparks’ office reads: “We Shall Build Good Ships Here; At A Profit If We Can, At A Loss If We Must, But Always Good Ships.”
“The good ships are the students,” DeWitt said, adding that teachers also “ping on sonar” when a student is in need of attention.
Sparks has two daughters in college and third who is a senior at Mary Persons.
He enjoyed reading, watching ice hockey and caring for rescue dogs.
“He was just a good, fair man,” Misty Sparks said of her husband.
In his final days of life at the hospital, Misty Sparks told The Telegraph her husband said, “I’ve worked so hard and so long, but I’m not finished.”
“He had more that he wanted to do,” Misty Sparks said. “He had aspirations of being a superintendent one day, but he realized that his body was through.”
Sparks’ funeral is set for 2 p.m. Friday at the Latter-day Saints Chapel on Williamson Road in Macon. Additional counselors will be on hand at Rutland High School for the next few days to provide extra support to students. A balloon release at the school is set for 10:20 a.m. Wednesday.