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East Rowan says goodbye to principal Kelly Sparger

SALISBURY — East Rowan High School Mustangs and their families bid a fond farewell Saturday to principal Kelly Sparger as he conducted his final commencement ceremony, handkerchief in hand.
Sparger teared up as the first graduates entered Keppel Auditorium at Catawba College and had a hard time keeping his emotions in check throughout the rest of the ceremony. Every student who took the podium mentioned Sparger and the impact he has had on the school and students during his decade as principal.
“Mr. Sparger taught us to be nice to everyone and never forget who you are,” said student body President Amy Shank, who recalled how the principal greeted students by name each day, saying, “Hello there, Ms. Hopkins. How are you today?”
Valedictorian Allison Brindle said the class of 2013 was lucky and blessed to have spent all four years of high school with Sparger at the helm.
Known for handing out peppermints, Sparger went to every class, every day. If a student was absent, he noticed. If a teacher needed something, he provided it.
“He is completely student-focused, and he empowers teachers to be better teachers,” said Lt. Col. Greg Skelly, a first-year teacher in the Jr. ROTC program. “He would tell us, ‘Do what you do best — teach the kids. And I will take care of all the rest.’”
Skelly, who retired from the Army to teach high school, said it took him 10 minutes to learn of Sparger’s reputation when he began interviewing for jobs.
As a parent of two East Rowan Mustangs, Jenna Fry said Sparger is one of a kind.
“It’s going to be very hard to replace him. He’s a presence in that school,” Fry said. “He makes an effort to know his students, and they know him.”
In a Facebook tribute to Sparger, Ericka Brooke Kluttz said the principal regularly picked up trash in the school parking lot at 6 a.m. on Saturdays.
“Name another principal in the county that dedicated,” she said.
Glenda Dyson said Sparger sent handwritten cards congratulating her sons on their achievements on the golf course.
“When they were later recognized in the paper for college or military achievements, they received a card from him again,” Dyson said. “That says so much about him, to be that caring and connected with students. He will be missed.”
Sparger, 62, said Saturday’s graduation was bittersweet.
“It was sad in a lot of ways for me, but I was so proud of my kids and staff and parents,” he said.
He said he acknowledged to Rowan-Salisbury Schools Superintendent Dr. Judy Grissom, who shared the stage with him, that commencement was “a lot harder than I thought it was going to be.”
Seeing the class of 2013 in caps and gowns brought back memories not only of the past four years but of the past four decades in public education, Sparger said.
A 1968 graduate of North Rowan High School, Sparger earned a bachelor’s degree from N.C. State University in 1972. From 1972 to 1974, he worked in Rowan County schools as a teacher and basketball coach.
His career took him elsewhere for about 20 years, and Sparger returned to Rowan County in 1994 as principal of Erwin Middle School. He moved across the street and became principal of East Rowan in 2003.
Sparger seemed surprised and genuinely moved by tributes to him during commencement addresses by Salutatorian Micah Eli Bostian, Senior Class President Kristen Mathis and others. Their words meant the world to him, Sparger said.
“It was very humbling,” he said. “They are the reason I do this job, the reason I got into education to begin with. They are what makes this job fun and meaningful.”
The class of 2013 helped restore school spirit at East Rowan, Sparger said. Students sang the school’s fight song over the intercom every Friday, and the marching band now marches through the school, leading students out to the stadium for pep rallies.
Having a successful football team didn’t hurt the effort to boost Mustang pride, Sparger acknowledged. He said he hopes the new traditions will continue after he retires Aug. 1.
Sparger said he’s retiring to spend more time with wife Debby, their children Heather Dyer and Justin Sparger and their five grandchildren — Jordan, Sarah Margaret, Logan, Jimmy and John.
He also plans to dedicate time to his parents, ages 85 and 86, and his brother, who retired three years earlier.
As he leaves the school he loves, Sparger said he has no regrets.
“I can honestly say I gave them everything I have,” he said. “I enjoyed every minute of it.”

Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.

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