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Dr. Robert Sparks, UNMC chancellor in '70s, dies at 82; recalled as a visionary

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    Dr. Robert Sparks, UNMC's chancellor from 1972 to 1976, died Monday in California following several months of declining health. He was 82.

Posted: Wednesday, July 2, 2014 5:15 pm

Dr. Robert Sparks, a former chancellor at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, died Tuesday in California after being in poor health for several months. He was 82.

Sparks, who followed Cecil Wittson as the second chancellor of the medical center, also held the position of vice president of the University of Nebraska system.

“He was a thoughtful administrator and a visionary whose programs greatly outlasted his tenure,” said Dr. Robert Wigton, a professor in the 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.”

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

As chancellor from 1972-76, Sparks oversaw construction of the College of Pharmacy building to accommodate its move from Lincoln. He also presided over construction of the College of Nursing, the Nebraska Lions Eye Institute and the opening of the Eppley Science Hall.

During a 2005 visit from his home in El Dorado Hills, California, to UNMC, Sparks took note of the campus growth that had occurred since his tenure: “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.”

The Newton, Iowa, native received his bachelor’s degree and medical degree 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, Sparks joined the Tulane faculty and, in 1969, 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.

He became a sought-after speaker in the fields of internal medicine, gastroenterology, alcohol and drug addictions and health-planning policy.

Following his time at UNMC, he became program director of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. In 1995, he became president and CEO of the California Medical Association Foundation, a position he held until he retired in 1998.

Sparks received multiple honors over the years, including an honorary doctor of humanitarian service degree from Creighton University in 1978.

He 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.

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