By M. Scott Morris
NEW SITE – In the 1930s, love took a bus from New Site to Booneville, then a train to Wheeler.
Cars weren’t as plentiful as they are today, so a school bus ran a route on Saturdays. The train with two passenger cars was called “The Doodlebug.”
“That train, it’d come back two hours later,” said Holley Sparks, 94, of New Site. “I would go back to Booneville, and then I’d catch the school bus and ride home.”
On Sundays, he paid a neighbor to take him to Wheeler, so he could spend time with his girl, Hazel Moore.
“I worked one day a week at this man’s farm. Cotton. Corn. Chickens. Everything,” Holley Sparks said. “Then I’d pay his son to take me to her.”
Their courtship began in 1936, and they were married two years later on Sept. 11, 1938. For those keeping score, Holley and Hazel Sparks will celebrate 75 years of marriage on Wednesday.
“Love at first sight. That’s what it was,” Hazel Sparks, 92, said. “I liked him. He was a good-looking man.”
They met when New Site School took a play to Wheeler. The play was called “The College Hobo,” and Holley Sparks was the hobo.
“I said, ‘This is a beautiful girl. I’m going to marry her,’” he said. “I walked her home that night.”
Their courtship included a lot of talking and eating, while family members were on hand to chaperone.
“My mother did the cooking. I couldn’t cook nothing,” Hazel Sparks said.
“She couldn’t boil water. Her mother cooked,” he said. “I didn’t know which one I liked better – her or her mother. She fed me well.”
Holley Sparks is the kind of man who can get an idea in his head and won’t let go. One day he came across a road crew and talked himself into a day’s work. After plenty of hustle, he earned a job offer that would’ve involved a move to Atlanta.
That’s when a big idea hit him.
“I had my mind on marrying. She was good-looking. I thought somebody else might get her,” he said. “I came back and called her, and she said, ‘Yes.’”
His daddy convinced him to finish school and pass on the Atlanta job, but the wedding went forward. The honeymoon was less than ideal for the high school sweethearts.
“He worked with public works then,” Hazel Sparks said. “I picked cotton that first day. The next day, he got me help. Back in the ’30s, it was a hard time.”
“I went to Germany in the infantry and got wounded over there,” he said. “The first month in battle, I got hit. They sent me to England. I stayed seven months before they sent me home.”
During their separation, they sent letters back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean.
“I wrote her every night that I could,” Holley Sparks said.
“Yeah, I was waiting for the mail,” his wife said.
“I would get 10 or 15 letters at a time after I got to the front line,” he said. “They would keep me going.”
Leaving the farm
Holley Sparks grew up expecting to be a farmer, and that’s what he did when he got back home. When the couple started having children, he came to a tough realization.
“All I had was a pair of mules and a horse. Well, I had a hog or two. Sold them,” he said. “I didn’t want to quit farming. I had to put kids through college. I decided farming wasn’t going to do it.”
He worked where he could before landing at Reynolds Metal Co. in Sheffield, Ala. After four years there, a big opportunity came. He’d made friends with an engineer, who suggested he apply at the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Ala.
The pair moved to Decatur, Ala., where Hazel Sparks, who’d left school in 11th grade, got her GED. She eventually worked 19 years at a school cafeteria, and raised three children, Larry, Bettye and Marie.
Times got better, and Holley Sparks found his place at the Redstone Arsenal. He traveled to just about every state NASA did business.
“I learned it and they knew it. Me with my high school education. No college,” he said. “I always found that you never want to pretend to know what you don’t know. It’ll all come out, anyway, so be honest with them.”
The couple took a deferred honeymoon to Florida, and even lived in Coco Beach for a time.
“Oh, we lived at the beach,” Hazel Sparks said.
“Right on the water,” he said.
“I liked it because you could go barefoot whenever you wanted,” she said.
They’d come a long way but weren’t immune to hard times. Their daughter, Marie, was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer in her 20s.
“When our daughter was in the hospital in Birmingham, he stayed down there most of the time,” Hazel Sparks said, “and his check was like he was still working. That’s how much they thought of him.”
“We’ve had trouble and sickness,” Holley Sparks said, “but the Lord’s been with us.”
He retired after 37 years at Redstone Arsenal. The pair owned land in New Site and decided to move back to Northeast Mississippi.
These days, Holley Sparks tends a garden and mows his grass, though he doesn’t think it’s a big deal.
“It’s a nice mower,” he said. “It does all the work.”
They’ve got their ailments, of course. Diabetes limits the amount of time he can stand on his feet, and her arthritis slows her down.
Through it all, they have each other
“We’ve had a good life,” Holley Sparks said. “I never thought about leaving her. I thought about killing her.”
“When he gets mad, it tickles me and I walk off,” she said. “When I get mad, we’d argue it out. We never fought. We just argued.”
“She’s got a temper,” he said. “She wouldn’t be the wife for me if she didn’t have that.”
“But I’m slow to get mad,” she said.
They have two surviving children, six grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren, and most of them and other well-wishers will be at New Site Baptist Church today from 2 to 4 p.m. for a 75th anniversary celebration. It’s a milestone few can match.
“Usually, they will separate. One will pass on, leave the other,” she said. “Not us.”
During the party someone probably will ask for their secret. Holley Sparks will give credit where it’s due.
“The secret to all of it is knowing the good Lord,” he said. “If we didn’t have the Lord’s blessing, we wouldn’t have what we have today.”
He also might share some other wisdom he learned while making a life with that beautiful girl from Wheeler.
“Love is being able to forgive,” Holley Sparks said. “Best of all – best of all – is being able to forget.”
“That’s right,” his wife said.