Cazenovia was shaken Wednesday Oct. 6 by the loss of an important pillar of the community.
Ralph K. Sparks passed away at University Hospital after suffering a medical emergency while driving his school bus. A graduate of Cazenovia High School in 1968, Ralph had many friends around town. The 61- year-old was dearly loved, and is fondly remembered. At calling hours Sunday Oct. 10 at Tait Funeral Home, Cazenovians of all ages patiently waited in a two-hour line to pay their respects to Ralph’s life and the legacy he left behind.
Ralph was a charter member of Cazenovia Area Volunteer Ambulance Corps and a member of the Cazenovia Fire Department’s Hook and Ladder Company. He was a former captain of the Rescue Team, and was instrumental in the creation of the SCUBA Dive Team. Having served in Vietnam, Ralph was a member of American Legion Post #88. A bus driver for the Cazenovia Central School District, he delivered and dropped off students for 18 years.
Ralph was also an avid outdoorsman; he liked kayaking in the summer and snowmobiling during the winter season. He enjoyed these activities with the company of his family, his loving wife and his children.
The son of Ken and Barbara Sparks, Ralph was the oldest of four boys. He is survived by his parents and brothers, as well as his sons Doug and Jason, and his wife of 33 years, Elise. Ralph’s strong commitment to service is shared by his family as well; his sons are current members of the Hook and Ladder Company and Elise was a teacher for the Cazenovia Central School district for many years and served as union president.
Elise said Ralph was “a great father, and a wonderful husband who always put others before himself.”
“He liked to help, and he loved his work. I think if he could have been a professional fireman, he would have,” she said.
Strongly affected by the loss of a colleague, the Cazenovia Fire Department displayed commemorative purple and black bunting along the roof of their building for the following week. The American flag flew at half-mast as news spread throughout the company and the town. Ralph was a valuable member of the Underwater Recovery Team, as well as the Cold Water Rescue Team. He had saved numerous swimmers in danger of drowning, and was a popular figure among the department. In 1988 Ralph was honored as the Central New York Firefighter of the Year.
While the memories of Ralph’s heroism are fresh in the minds and hearts of everyone that knew him, his legacy is everlasting. Fire Department Chief Rick Macheda remembers Ralph as a dedicated firefighter, as well as a rescue diver.
Current Rescue Captain Bill Carr recounted his involvement in the many facets of the department. “He will be sorely missed,” Carr said.
The school district’s Department of Transportation also misses Ralph. One year from retirement, Ralph was an essential member of the workforce, running his routes promptly and efficiently.
Transportation Supervisor Karen Cowherd has nothing but fond memories of Ralph.
“He was a fun person to be around, always upbeat, very positive,” she said. “Anything we asked him to do he’d be more than happy to help out. He was just the most giving person.”
Assistant Superintendent Bill Furlong told a story of one day when Ralph’s two vocations collided.
Ralph was driving his bus back to the garage when he came across a burning house along Route 92. He immediately alerted the closest fire department and rushed into the burning building, searching for the inhabitants trapped amidst the smoke and fire.
“He was the person who was always there, ready to help out,” Furlong said.
Ralph received many commendations throughout his career. Like Furlong, many Cazenovia residents have their own stories to tell of Ralph’s bravery.
Funeral services for Ralph were held Monday Oct. 10 at a packed St. James Church. He was laid to rest in Evergreen Cemetery on Saturday Oct. 16.
It has been requested that in lieu of flowers, any contributions be made to the Cazenovia Fire Department, located at 127 Albany St.