For the past several installments of Newton's annual Soldiers Reunion parade, the assembled crowds of people went wild about the time The Observer News Enterprise staff passed in our golf carts.
It wasn't necessarily because the audience was excited to see the folks who work at Catawba County's community newspaper. No, the shouts and cheers were inspired by the parade entry directly behind us; by a person who is probably the most recognizable citizen of this county: National Gourd Lady Margaret "Sparky" Sparkman.
With her wild orange and green gourd dress and goofy gourd hat, Sparky paraded through the streets of Newton in a convertible, "bopping" heads along the way with her long-handled gourd dipper. As she did, she wore the smile that rarely slipped from her face as she visited school classrooms, the Shuford YMCA or even the offices of The O-N-E. During the parade, her eyes were always full of the life that reminded the world just how well her "Sparky" nickname fit.
And when people saw her coming in the parade, they went absolutely wild. Everybody loves the Gourd Lady, and we should, but our affection for Sparky is rooted deeper than her kooky dress and her clever creations. The woman who's been labeled the "jewel of Conover" by the city's current mayor was more than a self-styled and diligently promoted character who appeared in parades, shows in Charlotte and TV programs.
As we mourn her passing this week, Catawba County and North Carolina lost more than a folk artist. We lost a perfect example of what is possible in this world if we just put our mind to it. We lost an everyday reminder of what can come if we maintain a positive attitude and try to spread a smile onto the faces of folks who could use it the most.
Sure, plenty of people know about the spotlight Sparky received a couple of times thanks to Jay Leno and The Tonight Show — and if you didn't, she'd remind you any time you saw her. Likewise, folks are familiar with her repeat appearances on Mike Redding's TV program the Carolina Traveler — the show that helped launch Sparky from her status as the county's gourd lady, to statewide acclaim and even her self-professed position as "the nation's gourd lady."
Before that, though, she introduced generations of Carolinians to her unique brand of folk art that converted the planet's most boring and basic vegetables into an endless array of creations. Her work with a band saw and a paint brush was about more than bringing new life to dry gourds, however. So often, they brought life and smiles to people who need a little bit of a spiritual and emotional boost.
And if her clever gourd creations couldn't inspire a smile in folks, certainly she could with her stubborn insistence on living every moment of life to the fullest. After all, how many people deep in their 90s still insist on driving almost daily to the YMCA for water aerobics or games of bridge in the community center that bears her name? There aren't an awful lot of folks who can boast participation in Charlotte's Southern Christmas and Spring shows for nearly five decades — even after professing to retire from the practice. Simply put, Sparky believed that if she was up and able to live and go and do, everyone else should, too. In fact, I'll bet there are plenty of folks decades younger than she who had a hard time keeping up with her.
That kind of energy, spirit and determination is enough to inspire anyone.
Beyond urging others to follow her footsteps in maintaining an active, positive lifestyle, Sparky was a non-stop PR machine — her own best promoter. Truth be told, not a lot of months passed without The O-N-E receiving a letter written in her familiar scrawl — letters announcing her enjoyment of our newspaper, but also sharing where she would next display her gourdy wares, whether it was the Conover library or the Southern Christmas show. If it wasn't a letter, it was a phone call or a personal visit, and, with the occasional eye roll, we always published her announcements, mainly because we know it meant so much to her. And because she meant so much to us.
Sparky applied the same gusto of self-promotion to the county she called home for 95 years, as well as the places here that were so important to her. When she reached a stage outside our county, she always found a way to talk about Conover and Catawba County. She found a way to share her joy in the places familiar to us, but which people beyond our county may never know.
Her thoughts and her conversation — if not her presence, too — was never very far from the Adrian L. Shuford YMCA. She welcomed photographs with fans, in exchange for a donation to the Y. A lot of her proceeds from her gourd sales benefitted the place she taught gourd art and worked for more than 33 years. Even after she died Tuesday, she'll continue supporting the place that serves hundreds of children, families and senior citizens. As part of her funeral arrangements, she asked that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Shuford Y and Concordia Lutheran Church.
Like so many folks who came in contact with Sparky, I'm glad I got a chance to know her over the past 10 years. At first, I admit I was taken aback by her PR persistence — there aren't a lot of folks who so consistently strive to promote themselves in the newspaper. Likewise, during our frequent interactions, her insistence on putting her arms around me or grabbing at my hands with her own weathered and crooked fingers made me a feel a little uncomfortable initially.
Once I got to know her, however, I came to realize that these habits of hers were just part of her special spark; part of her personality that ultimately sought to touch people's lives with a little bit of a positive spark.
Now as her family and friends lay her to rest during the weekend, she leaves behind quite a legacy in Catawba County and Conover that extends well beyond her unique blend of folk art and her Jay Leno "bopping" claim to fame. As we all look to the funny gourd critters that hold special places in so many homes and offices — a mini Gourd Lady hat and a bobwhite on the corner of my work desk — we're reminded of what is possible for people who want to be active, positive contributors to their community. That kind of spark is contagious, and it is how Margaret Sparkman leaves this world and our county a better place.
Michael Willard is the publisher of and a columnist for
The Observer News Enterprise. His column appears in the weekend edition.