Life Story / Obituary
Robert “Bob” Forrest Sparks was a man dedicated to family and hard work. Described as a gentle giant, he was strict with his children but also generous and kind-hearted. A perfectionist in everything he did, he taught his children to do the job right – the first time.
1934 found the United States in the middle of the Great Depression. In the Midwest, strong winds blew the soil from farmlands into huge clouds, which became known as the Dust Bowl, destroying crops throughout the area. For Forrest and Gertrude (Mills) Sparks, life in Detroit Michigan, although not in the midst of the Dust Bowl, was nevertheless difficult. Already the parents of a daughter, Betty, on March 15, they welcomed their son, Robert Forrest. In order to provide for the entire family, Forrest and Gertie took in an aunt’s family to raise and care for.
Bob learned the benefits of hard work at an early age. He began working for Duffy’s Plumbing when he was 12 years old. It was his job to clean the shop, do odd jobs and be the general “gopher”. Through his diligence he eventually landed a regular job as a plumber’s apprentice. At age 18 Bob became the youngest man in the State of Michigan to earn his journeyman plumber's license.
While in high school, Bob and his good friend Kamel Hindy decided to go to the movies in Kamel’s new convertible. They had ridden to the theatre with the top down and Bob suggested that they put the top up while at the movies, in case of rain. Kamel was sure the weather would cooperate so the top stayed down. When they exited from the movie, they found a pool of water in Kamel’s new car.
Bob graduated from MacKenzie High School in Detroit and enlisted in the Army, after being in ROTC, near the end of the Korean War. Upon his discharge, he began working for Fisher Body in Detroit, as a pipe fitter. This was the perfect job and allowed him to use his plumber’s training. He had worked up to the position of maintenance foreman before leaving. In 1959 he married Sheila McDonald in Detroit, a marriage that produced 5 wonderful children – Debbie, Robert, Tim, Karen and John. Bob loved his children and always spoke very highly of them. Son John remembers when he was in Cub Scouts and needed to build a Pinewood Derby Car. His dad was more than willing to help. The car had to be an exact weight, and being the perfectionist that he was, Bob took the car to Star Watchcase and had them weigh it on the gold scale to be sure it was exact. This attention to detail enabled John to win first place.
Son Tim began working with his dad when he was 12 – after school, on weekends and during the summer. Bob was very methodical and always made sure the job was done right the first time. It was embarrassing for him to have to go back and do something over. He continued to help Tim, and eventually Tim earned his journeyman’s license. The strong work ethic and good work habits he had learned from his father enabled Tim to become a plumbing inspector in the city of Grand Rapids.
In 1968 Bob and Sheila moved the family to Scottville, to get away from the Detroit riots. Bob wanted a better living environment for his family. Bob worked for a short time for Ziehm’s LP Gas as a deliveryman. From there he went to Ludington Plumbing and Heating. Colleague and friend Ray Scholtens remembers Bob as a man who dealt fairly with clients and treated every one with the same polite consideration. Bob went back to school and earned his Master Plumber’s License. He was a much respected plumber and served many area businesses and schools. His marriage to Sheila ended in 1980.
As an adult, Bob had been mistaken many times for Kenny Rogers, the country singer. In 1982 while sitting in Steve’s Restaurant during the Harvest Festival, a young lady came up to Bob, noting his likeness to the famous Kenny Rogers, and jokingly asked him for his autograph. She then turned and walked away in embarrassment. Friend Dick Smith saw what happened and took the young lady back to the table and introduced her to Bob. Her name was Janice (Sewell) Melchert. The two became friends and dated for the next 4 years, getting married on December 31, 1986 at the Mason County Reformed Church. Janice brought 6 more wonderful children to the family – Charles, Dawn, Greg, Brad, Michelle and Tonya.
Bob and Janice had a cottage on Gunn Lake, and they loved spending time there with their combined families. Bob enjoyed puttering around the place, tending to the lawn and the beach. He took great pleasure in pulling his kids and grandkids on a tube behind his boat, going water skiing, or just watching the sunset from the deck of his pontoon boat. The cottage was enjoyed year round. This past year while participating in an ice fishing outing, Michelle came ill-prepared - no auger or equipment. Bob reluctantly let her use one of his precious tools, an axe, to cut a hole in the ice, reminding her to take good care of it. The axe now resides at the bottom of the lake and Bob jokingly suggested that she invest in scuba gear to retrieve it for him.
He always had several projects going, usually working with neighbor Aldis Wagner. One of his projects was to make their cottage into a fulltime residence. Sadly, Bob was not able to finish this project.
In March of this year, Bob was in a terrible car accident, which left him a quadrapalegic, injuries from which he would never recover. Daughter Karen remembers calling her father on each Father’s Day to talk – but not being able to do that this year. Since it had always been her job to clean her father’s truck, to honor her father on this Father’s Day, she cleaned her own car to his strict standards, getting rid of every last dog hair. Right up to the end, Bob had a strong influence on all of his family. He will be remembered by his family for his dry humor, dedication to family, strong work ethic and striving for perfection. They will remember the many times spent skiing and tubing at Layman's Landing or the lake, multitudes of projects begun, and enjoying the beauty of a quiet sunset.
Robert Sparks died on Tuesday, July 6th at Spectrum Health - Kent Community Campus in Grand Rapids. He was preceded in death by his parents, his granddaughter Sarah Sparks, and his sister Betty West. His family includes his wife Janice, his children Debbie (Dale) Swanson of Ludington, Robert (Cindy) Sparks of East Bridgewater, MA, Tim (Theresa) Sparks of Grand Rapids, Karen Sparks of Bethesda, MD and John (Cindy) Sparks of Washington, IN,; his stepchildren Charles Melchert of Myrtle Beach, SC, Dawn (Larry) Cabana of Homer, AK, Gregory (Lori) Melchert of Scottville, Bradley (Dawn) Melchert of Manistee, Michele Melchert of Detroit, and Tonya (Raymond) Morgan of Ludington; 18 grandchildren and his former wife Sheila. A Celebration of Life service will be held for Bob at 1:00 pm on Friday, July 9, 2004 at Stephens Life Story Funeral Home in Scottville with Rev. James Schroeder of Our Savior Lutheran Church officiating. Burial with Honor Guard rites will follow at Brookside Cemetery. Friends may meet with his family for a time of visitation on Thursday from 2-4 and 7-9 PM at the funeral home. Please visit Bob’s personal memory page at www.lifestorynet.com where you may leave a memory or make a memorial contribution to the Renucci Hospitality House, Grand Rapids. Arrangements are being cared for by the Stephens Life Story Funeral Home in Scottville.