Professor’s gift sent smart girl off to college

Published 9:29 am Thursday, July 30, 2015

The little girl from the headwaters of Bear Creek happily walked the two miles to the bus stop every morning in first grade. At Farmington School, amid a class of boys and girls, she could escape the loneliness of the remote tobacco farm. When it rained her father plopped her atop the plow mule to keep her out of the mud as he led her to the bus stop at Elmore’s Store Road. They had no way of knowing if school was cancelled. Sometimes the bus didn’t come.

The next year she learned the great advantage of having three considerably older brothers: One of them drove the bus.

Her father, Robert Smoot, was a justice of the peace. He occasionally married young couples on the front steps of the family home. He dammed the shallow creek on the farm in summer to pond enough water for Bear Creek Baptist Church to have its baptisms. Girls in white dresses and boys in white shirts would be dunked in the water and emerge … wearing gray.

Robert and wife Mattie Eaton Smoot had set aside money to send their daughter to college … until he fell deathly ill. A long hospital stay exhausted the family’s savings. Adding to their woes, two sons had joined the U.S. Navy during World War II and the third lived in Salisbury. Mattie and her daughter struggled to plant the crops that spring, but it was a poor harvest.

The dream of college for the smart little girl, valedictorian of the Farmington High Class of 1942, seemed hopeless.

Maybe then God stepped in. A letter arrived from Oregon. A great uncle she had never met, Robert Wilkerson, a college professor, invited young Madeleine to come out to Oregon. He and his wife, a childless couple, invited her to their home. They would pay for all her college expenses — everything.

She couldn’t accept. Two brothers were away at war. Her father was ill. And she had barely ventured outside Davie County.

Professor Wilkerson’s generosity would not be deterred. He sent a check for $300 — enough to pay for young Madeleine’s tuition for the first year at Appalachian State Teacher’s College. The joys of school would become a fixture in her life. She taught at Mocksville High and Farmington High. After a 20-year hiatus to raise six children, she taught the wonders of chemistry to legions of teens at Davie High.

I am one of the six children.

My mother, Madeleine Smoot Sparks, turns 90 this week. Her lifespan has included wars, economic booms and upheavals, and an array of presidents all the way back to Herbert Hoover. She has witnessed a host of inventions of labor saving devices. Last year she joined Facebook.

I have always been amazed at her strength of character, good humor, generous spirit and tenacity in the face of trouble. The character-building lessons of the Bear Creek tobacco farm were not lost on her.

Professor Wilkerson’s generosity also amazes me. His check allowed her to escape the tobacco field where she had to hoe weeds and pluck yucky green worms from the tobacco leaves by hand.

A boy from Farmington courted her heavily, finally winning her hand. They were frugal, hard working and God-fearing. Johnny Sparks and my grandfather sawed the timber and did most of the work to build a four-room house on Spillman Road.  The young couple moved in before construction was finished. They painted walls, finished the flooring and added a bathroom … as they could afford it.

In turn, the six children joined the family dairy enterprise, all helping milk cows at night or morning. Cow manure has always been a fact of life for me. I’m hoping it built character.

My mother’s example has always been an inspiration for me. I love her a lot.

— Dwight Sparks