Former UNMC Chancellor Dr. Robert Sparks dies

July 03, 2014

Image with caption: Robert Sparks, M.D., stands outside a conference room named in his honor. The room is inside the Harold M. and Beverly Maurer Center for Public Health.

Robert Sparks, M.D., stands outside a conference room named in his honor. The room is inside the Harold M. and Beverly Maurer Center for Public Health.

Robert Sparks, M.D., was an accomplished speaker in the fields of internal medicine, gastroenterology, alcohol and drug addictions and health planning policy.

To the UNMC community, however, he is best remembered as UNMC chancellor (1972 to 1976) and vice president of the University of Nebraska system.

The 82-year-old died Tuesday (July 1) in California.

"He was a thoughtful administrator and a visionary whose programs greatly outlasted his tenure," said Robert Wigton, M.D., professor, department of internal medicine. "At a time of relative physician shortage, he worked hard to increase the number of UNMC graduates staying in the state in primary care practice."

His most lasting achievement, Dr. Wigton said, was to champion a bill in the Nebraska Legislature that provided funding for training in family practice and other primary care fields. This bill, passed in 1975, continues to provide a significant part of the funding for UNMC's resident training today.

Dr. Wigton said: "Even after he left UNMC, he worked to provide grants for programs in health care education in Nebraska. Dr. Sparks was a quiet man who worked behind the scenes to get his programs done. He was always a gentleman and cared about the Medical Center and its people."

picture disc.
Robert Sparks, M.D., as UNMC Chancellor
As UNMC's second chancellor, Dr. Sparks oversaw the construction of the College of Pharmacy building to accommodate its move from Lincoln. He also presided over the construction of the College of Nursing, the Nebraska Lion's Eye Institute, and the Clinic (ambulatory care) Building and the opening of the Eppley Science Hall. In 1976, he created the UNMC Board of Counselors, a group of advisors to the medical center focusing on long-range planning and goal setting.

The Newton, Iowa, native received his bachelor's degree (1955) and medical degree (1957) from the University of Iowa. He completed his residency in internal medicine and gastroenterology at Tulane University in New Orleans and interned at the Charity Hospital of Louisiana in New Orleans.

In 1958, Dr. Sparks joined the Tulane faculty and quickly rose through the ranks. In 1969 he became dean of the Tulane School of Medicine. During his time in Louisiana, he was director of the Louisiana Heart Association and the Louisiana Cancer Society.

Following his tenure at UNMC, he became program director of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. He was named vice president of programming in 1981 and president from 1982-88. In 1995, he became president and CEO of the California Medical Association Foundation, a position he held until his retirement in 1998.

Dr. Sparks continues to aid students at UNMC through several funds: The Chancellor Robert D. Sparks, M.D. Award in Public Health and Preventive Medicine; The Chancellor Robert D. Sparks, M.D., Public Health Research Award; and the Chancellor Robert D. Sparks, M.D. Pre-Professional Student Scholarship in Health Promotion and Disease Prevention.

Dr. Sparks, who lived in El Dorado Hills, Calif., was impressed with the growth of the UNMC campus. "It's something we would never have imagined the scope of in the 1970s -- just like we can't imagine the scope today of what it will be in 2025," he said during a 2005 visit.


Fill out the following and your comment will post once it has been approved.

Name (Required)

Email (Required)

Thank you, your comment will appear below once it has been approved.

John Schleicher, M.A.
July 03, 2014 at 10:25 AM

Dr. Sparks was a true gentelman! I only had a chance to meet him twice, but we quickly struck up a regular email correspondence. He was surprised and humbled when I told him we had a file in the archives covering his life and career. What a nice man!

Darwin Brown, MPH, PA-C
July 03, 2014 at 8:48 AM

Dr. Sparks was instrumental in the development of and support for the Physician Assistant Program at UNMC and the concept of PAs in the state. His efforts have paid substantial dividends over the past 40 years. Physician Assistants across the state owe a debt of gratitude to Dr. Sparks for his willingness to embrace a new and novel type of health care provider. Thank you for your foresight and courage.

Jane Meza, Ph.D., chair of the department of biostatistics and director of the Center for Collaboration on Research, Design and Analysis
July 02, 2014 at 3:11 PM

Dr. Sparks has been a strong supporter of the College of Public Health and our public health community. He was a true innovator and we will miss our dear friend. We will be forever thankful for the “Sparks Awards” that he developed to recognize our current and future leaders in public health.

Bob Bartee, vice chancellor for external affairs
July 02, 2014 at 3:09 PM

Although I never had the pleasure of working directly with Bob, I came to respect him immensely. He was the right leader for a fledgling campus at the right time in its history. Bob was a caring person who demonstrated in his life’s work a passion for promoting population-based health. He will be missed.