A Resourceful Institution
George Sparks, the school’s first president, invested in and oversaw rapid growth and change at the downtown campus
George M. Sparks didn’t have the academic credentials expected of a higher education leader when he became director of the Georgia Tech Evening School of Commerce in 1928. He had made a name for himself as a field journalist for the Macon Telegraph, covering the activities of Georgia’s National Guard troops in the Mexican Revolution from the border and reporting on World War I from the nation’s capital. He later served as the paper’s city editor. Sparks found his way into academia as a publicity director and journalism lecturer and eventually realized, at age 39, that college administration was his life’s work.
What Sparks lacked in experience he made up for with enthusiasm and dedication to the downtown Evening School and its nontraditional students. He established the Evening School’s library in 1931 with a donation of books from his own collection. He gave students loans out of his own accounts so they could pay tuition.
“He was a very generous man with his time, with his energy and with his efforts on behalf of the students who were coming to Georgia State,” says Jean Thomas, a 1943 graduate and former assistant dean of women who retired from the university in 1991, of Sparks. “He was determined that this little bitty evening school was going to develop into something of significance.”
Enrollment increased steadily as the Evening School began to attract students from across Georgia despite challenging economic circumstances. By 1946, the institution that had occupied just six rooms on Forsyth Street when Sparks took over was settling into a new six-story, 180,000 square-foot space — a former parking garage, complete with ramps — with more than 4,000 students.
But the college’s growth under Sparks wasn’t limited to physical expansion. Sparks favored the study of general liberal arts subjects in addition to the science and math courses required by the Evening School’s commerce degree, and expanded the school’s offerings accordingly. Although the school could award only bachelor of commercial science and bachelor of business administration degrees until 1957, the arts and sciences flourished on Sparks’ watch. New areas of study proliferated, and the school’s full-time faculty grew from three professors in 1934 to 101 in 1954.
Throughout the school’s evolution Sparks proved a creative and resourceful director, networking with Atlanta’s business leaders as well as Evening School alumni and faculty. In many cases, those connections helped the school procure financial assistance, building materials, donated equipment or valuable parcels of land. For the students, Sparks established a textbook rental system and a credit union to make the cost of getting an education more manageable.
“Without Dr. Sparks there would have been no Georgia State because no one else had the vision he did,” says Lanette Suttles (B.C.S. ’49), whose husband William Suttles was president of the university from 1988-89. “We wouldn’t have had a school for working boys and girls. We wouldn’t have had a place where we could go and learn.”
A Sense of Place
When World War II began, depleting university enrollments all across the country, Sparks introduced a defense-focused curriculum, shifted academic schedules to accommodate draftees and made a push to attract and retain female students. As a result, the institution not only remained afloat, it thrived. At the end of the war, the school was poised to welcome veterans back to school by the thousand.
Cultivating community and school pride among students and faculty was another key part of Sparks’ vision. He sponsored student clubs and organizations, which gave an air of collegiate normalcy to the unconventional campus, and attended their banquets and festivals through the years. In 1939, he arranged for the school’s purchase of the Indian Creek Lodge, to this day an off-campus home for student and faculty recreational activities. In later years, it was not unusual to find Sparks surrounded by a group of students in the school’s snack bar, spinning a tale over a Coke.
“He could tell a story and just captivate you,” Suttles remembers. “We learned so much from him that no university could ever teach you because he knew mankind, he knew people.”
When he retired in 1957 Sparks had overseen construction of the school’s first new building — eventually named in his honor — and announced plans for other facilities to be constructed. In the yearbook dedication to him that year, the Rampway called Sparks the “master builder of Georgia State College.”
Change was a hallmark of Sparks’ 29-year tenure as president. Names and locations changed, and accreditation and degree programs came and went as the school was passed back and forth among Georgia Tech, the Board of Regents and the University of Georgia. Through all of these institutional growing pains, Sparks was steadfast in his goal to serve the nontraditional students — the workers, the veterans, those looking for a second chance — who came to the evening college.
At a dinner celebrating the school’s silver anniversary in 1939, words of effusive praise from Atlanta’s civic leaders showed the school was becoming an institution of significance to the city and the state. When it was Sparks’ turn to address the gathering, he asserted that the conventional trappings of higher education were not requisite for success.
“It is a challenge to other colleges to do away with tradition,” Sparks declared. “Just because they have a campus with a sun dial and a bird bath and trees, it doesn’t follow that they need them to get an education.”