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Making good from evil for 10 years

Shown at a drop-in reunion and fundraiser last February, from left, are Tameron Hill, Cavon Scott, Brenda Sparks McCleerey, Jim Sparks, Keren Fernandez, Jon Wilkins and Hunter Warwick. Shown at a drop-in reunion and fundraiser last February, from left, are Tameron Hill, Cavon Scott, Brenda Sparks McCleerey, Jim Sparks, Keren Fernandez, Jon Wilkins and Hunter Warwick.

Jeff and Brenda McCleerey had just enjoyed a student-family event at Catawba College, where their daughter Amber was a freshman, on a Friday night in November of 2007. Although they had packed to stay overnight in Salisbury, Brenda thought better of it.

“You know how that inner voice will talk to you? I said, ‘We need to go home and we need to go home now,’” she said. “We drove home, 2½ hours.”
As she approached a stoplight she spotted her mother’s red Cadillac Deville coming from the opposite direction.
“I met them on the corner of Ninth Avenue at 2:30 in the morning. They were in mom’s car. I said, ‘Oh, gosh, Mom and Rick are up late.’ It wasn’t until the next night when I found them and the car wasn’t there that I realized that they’d taken the car.”
Brenda discovered the bodies of her mother and brother, Connie and Ricky Sparks, at the home they shared on Connor Avenue that Saturday afternoon. By then, two 18-year-old Hendersonville men had been caught on tape in a gas drive-off in Statesville and spotted later on the campus of East Carolina University in Greenville.
“Two girls outside a dorm at ECU saw the red Cadillac circling the parking lot,” said Brenda’s brother, Jim Sparks. “They called police. The campus police saw them and tried to pull them over and they took off and ran. Then they wrecked the car and got out and ran and they caught them. … They already had them in jail for a stolen car and they realized what else they had done. They were in custody before Sissy found Mom and Ricky.”
Charged and convicted of the murders of Connie and Ricky were Charles F. Collins Jr. and Justin E. Graham, both 18. Collins and Graham are serving two life terms with no possibility of parole. When the murder defendants offered to plead guilty, the Sparkses did not object.
“We would have been involved in court for the next 25 years” had the defendants contested the charges at trial, Jim said.
Instead of thinking about vengeance, Brenda thought of protecting others.
“I just wanted them to put them somewhere that they could never get out, because if they would do that to Mom and Rick they’d do it to anyone,” she said. “We just wanted everybody to be safe.”
What happened next turned a murder story into something else. The Sparks family turned an act of evil into a force for good.

* * * * *

Everyone who went through Hendersonville Junior High School from 1968 through 1988 knew Connie Sparks. She was the lunchroom lady who knew all the kids, recognizing the ones who needed an extra helping of spaghetti because they didn’t eat at home.
RickySparksConnieSparksRicky Sparks and Connie SparksA generation of Bearcat football players knew Ricky Sparks, the cheerful special-needs super-fan who sat on his front porch on Ninth Avenue West and hollered “Go Bearcats” at the varsity players walking to and from football practice. On Friday nights he sat on the 30-yard line on the second row, to the left of the student section.
“Mom would drop him off,” Jim said. “He would have money but they never charged him. Everybody knew Rick. He would come in and go sit in his seat. It didn’t matter if it was pouring rain. He would not leave until the game was over.”
“They could have been 100 to nothing,” Brenda said. “He would have been right there till the last play.”

* * * * *

The survivors, Brenda and Jim and their brother, David, a Baptist minister in Wilkesboro, had plenty of reason to be angry and bitter when they lost their mother and brother. The losses had piled up.
Their father was Bobby Sparks, a Hendersonville native who worked at Berkeley Mills and played for the Berkeley Spinners industrial league team. After graduating from Hendersonville High in 1942, Sparks served in World War II. Back in his hometown, he met Connie Miller at the Justus Pharmacy soda fountain. He died at age 84 of natural causes on Aug. 27, 2007 — 10 weeks before Connie and Ricky were murdered.
“We lost half our family in less than three months,” Jim said.
As the family gathered at Brenda’s house a couple of days after the murders, a friend chased off the reporters who were knocking at her front door and back door. Inside, the family talked about how to honor Connie and Ricky.
“Everybody was trying to think what we could do,” Jim said. “Instead of people sending flowers I said, ‘let’s do something good,’ because that’s what Mom would have wanted us to do. (Sparks’s business partner) Tom Davis was actually on the board of the Education Foundation. I said, ‘Well, let’s start a scholarship.’ We went the next week after we had buried Mom and Rick and set it up and within a year there had been over $150,000 donated to the scholarship, from people all over the United States.”
On Friday, the extended Sparks family will remember something terrible and senseless. But as the 10th anniversary of that day approaches, they also realize they have a lot to celebrate. The Connie & Ricky Sparks Memorial Scholarship fund has given $14,000 in grants to 10 Hendersonville High School graduates in the last decade.

* * * * *

 

Jon Wilkins, the first Sparks scholarship recipient, remembers when the murders happened his senior year.
“It was a big deal,” he said. “Everybody knew who they were, especially the football team. I remember seeing him (Ricky) at football games. He always had lots of people come up to greet him. He was a popular guy.”
Wilkins, the son of HHS principal Bobby Wilkins and grandson of longtime Bruce Drysdale principal George Wilkins Sr., won lots of scholarships. “That one seemed a little bit more special because it had to deal with that tragedy,” he said. “It took me completely by surprise. At the time you’re happy but that scholarship came to mean something more. A lot of them you get that day and that’s the last you hear about it. With the Sparks, you kind of become part of their family. They send cards at Christmas and at the end of the year. They’re always wishing you well. They’re very involved and I’m just grateful to be part of it. They’ve stayed in touch for the whole 10 years. It’s not a four-year commitment, it’s a lifetime. You become part of their family and it’s a great family to be part of.”
A Clemson graduate, Wilkins owns his own landscaping business, Poa Mountain (named for a grass genus).


The most recent winner, Emily Johnson, remembers sitting in the auditorium during Move Up last May when Jim, Brenda and David announced the winner.
“What gave it away was when one of them said her grandfather was my guidance counselor,” said Emily, whose grandfather is Jack Johnson. “I said, ‘That’s me.’”
5 IDEmily Johnson, the 2017 winner, poses with David Sparks, her grandfather, retired HHS guidance counselor Jack Johnson, JIm Sparks and Brenda Sparks McCleerey.She had set her sights on the Sparks scholarship the first time she heard of it.
“I can remember my freshman year at my first Move Up and I saw the family come up on stage and talk. I remember all the love and compassion because it seemed like such a welcoming family,” she said. “I had no clue that I would end up being the lucky recipient.”
As senior class president in the 2016-17, Johnson, now a freshman at N.C. State, led a grassroots fight when county commissioners decided to build a new HHS.
“I think the biggest thing was the fight to save the building,” she said. “I was at every single pep rally, petition drive, county commission meeting. You name it, I was there.” And even though the Bearcats lost that fight, “I learned that even if we don’t necessarily have the physical building for academic purpose, the spirit of what a Bearcat is lives on in the hearts of the people. I learned so much in high school and I’m able to reflect on that now in my first semester in college.”


Tameron Hill, the class of ’16 winner, said the four-year award has helped her family.
“My mom (Erica Cook) is a single mom and she’s trying to help my brother get through college and now she’s helping me get through college and I wanted it to be not as much of a burden,” she said. “I cheered throughout high school. Cheering was a huge passion of mine since I was very little.” A member of the leadership class and the National Honor Society, she also enjoyed volunteering projects with the Keywanettes. Tameron Hill with Brenda McCleerey and Erica Cook.Tameron Hill with Brenda McCleerey and Erica Cook.A sophomore at UNC at Chapel Hill, she’s a resident adviser in her dorm and is majoring in exercise and sports science.
“They’re so kind,” she said of the Sparks family. “They ask me how I’m doing. We go out to lunch. They’re so willing to help people. They’re so forgiving and they’re amazing. I just love it.”


Hunter Warwick, the class of ’15 winner, was well aware of the family’s loss.
“I applied for this because it had so much meaning behind it,” she said. “I thought to me that it was the best scholarship of them all simply HunterWarwickBrendaJimHunter Warwick poses with Brenda McCleerey and Jim Sparks.because of the meaning behind it. This means something to a lot of people. I really wanted to be part of it. This was my main goal, to get this one.”
One question on the scholarship application asks the senior to describe how they exhibit “the true Bearcat spirit.”
“I was in leadership class, yearbook, volleyball, band, I attended as many sporting events as I could,” Warwick said. “I ran a lot of the pep rallies. I was one of the leads in the senior play. I didn’t care what people thought about me — I cheered as loud as I could.”

 

Kat Kilpatrick, the class of 2010 winner, is a story the Sparks family loves to tell. She’s a teacher at HHS.
“I just love the school and I was glad to be back,” Kilpatrick said. “Of all the scholarships I received that one absolutely meant the most and continues to. I really appreciate how good the family has been to me. When they didn’t know me well they’ve treated me like family ever since I won the award. … It’s such a sad story, especially for the first recipients. It happened just right down the road from our school. They really have made a tremendous positive impact on the community in the midst of a tragedy. I just never felt like they were angry or bitter. They wanted to embrace the good character of their mother and brother and they absolutely succeeded in that 100 percent.”
Other winners were Christi DeRidder (2009), Brayan Aguirre (2011), Shayna Scott (2012), Keren Fernandez (2013) and Cavon Scott (2014).

* * * * *

Through the scholarship fund Connie and Ricky Sparks live on – in the lives of young men and women who are the first in their family to attend college, in graduates who start a business and have a family and teach school, in adults who know what it means to give back, in the hearts of recipients who bleed Big Red.
“We grew up in a 900-square-foot house,” Jim said. “My mom always taught us — our whole family did — help people as you go. Hey, it’s a terrible thing but let’s do something good to remember Mom and Rick by. That’s what drove it. And now that we’ve given all these scholarships we’re very blessed because of the community and we have the ability to give more scholarships and we want to keep giving scholarships because it helps all kinds of different people. We could be sour the rest of our lives and hate but that don’t help.”


For more information or to donate, visit sparksscholarship.com.