More than Dollars and Cents: Larry Sparks Looks Forward to Retirement

After 23 years, UM vice chancellor for administration and finance plans to travel and visit family

Archive Photo: Larry Sparks (center) welcomes students and their families to the university during a 2019 reception in the Lyceum. Photo by Christian Johnson/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

OXFORD, Miss. – For 23 years, University of Mississippi alumnus Larry Sparks has served as a quiet force guiding the fiscal management and financial growth of his alma mater. Come Dec. 31, the vice chancellor for administration and finance will be retiring to pursue a future filled with enjoyments long-delayed.

The Oxford native has been the university’s chief financial officer since 2006. In that position, he has been responsible for an extensive list of areas across campus, including fiscal affairs, contractual services, facilities planning, health and safety, human resources, landscape services, facilities management, procurement services, campus mail, the golf course and airport operations.

“I’m looking forward to retirement,” Sparks said. “My wife and I are hoping to take advantage of many of the things we weren’t able to do during my career. We really want to travel – both around and outside of the United States.

“We also hope to spend a lot of time visiting our six grandchildren who reside between Nashville, Tennessee, and Gulf Shores, Alabama.”

He and wife Jacky Hedgepeth Sparks have three children: Jessi, Laura and Tyler.

Sparks’ fiscal management skills have been invaluable during his tenure at the university, Chancellor Glenn Boyce said.

“We are forever grateful to Larry for his decades of steadfast service to Ole Miss and to the state of Mississippi,” Boyce said. “As one of the longest-serving members of the university’s leadership team, he has truly had an incredible impact on shaping how we have grown and developed as a flagship institution.

“I have valued Larry’s counsel and friendship, and the legacy he leaves behind will allow us to grow even stronger for decades to come.”

Sparks said he also hopes to spend more time building things in his wood workshop.

“I just make things for our family and friends and for special occasions,” he said. “I never want to do more than that because then it would change from a hobby into a job.”

Childhood Memories

Sparks’ journey to decades of financial management began as early as his kindergarten and first-grade years.

Larry Sparks

“When I was very young, I used to save coins in a jar with a slot in the lid,” Sparks said. “At some point, I asked my mother to take me to the bank so I could open a savings account. I guess that’s where all this began.”

Although Sparks was always astute in mathematics, he became more interested in financial management as a result of college classmates who were into investments, he said.

“Their involvement in stocks and bonds piqued my desire to understand how these things operate,” Sparks said. “I started doing research primarily because I felt I needed to figure out what everyone else already seemed to know.”

Sparks began his UM studies as a civil engineering major, but he soon discovered he was more naturally drawn to accountancy.

“Accountancy seemed to be a good fit for me, so I switched majors,” he said.

From Theory to Experience

Early in his career, Sparks found employment as an assistant auditor with the Mississippi Department of Audit while Ray Mabus was serving as state auditor. Mabus had created a college and university division that specialized in auditing Mississippi’s public colleges and universities.

An unexpected turn of events in the midst of a major audit the department was conducting resulted in a grand opportunity for Sparks that set him on his trajectory to career success.

“My immediate supervisor resigned to accept another job opportunity,” Sparks said. “I was challenged to step up and assume full on-site responsibilities for the audit. As I did so, many of the concepts we’d studied in my classes at Ole Miss suddenly began to crystalize and instinctively seem to weave together in my mind.”

A Call and a Response

Sparks had worked with the Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning trustees’ office for 10 years when he received a call from Chancellor Emeritus Robert Khayat in 1997. Khayat asked Sparks to consider leaving his IHL position to join his administrative staff at the university.

“Growing up in Oxford and attending Ole Miss, I’d said I would never consider returning here to live and work,” Sparks said. “But when Chancellor Khayat asked me to come back and be on his management team, I couldn’t get back here fast enough.”

Khayat said that during the half-century he has been involved with Ole Miss, no one has made greater contributions to the university than Sparks.

“Larry arrived on campus fully understanding the funding and budget challenges the university confronted,” Khayat said. “Working with Rex De Loach, Johnny Williams and the finance and administration staff, he managed the business and budget responsibilities and never complained about any of the major challenges.”

When the university was transitioning to an enterprise resource planning system, SAP, and simultaneously reengineering administrative support processes, Sparks was asked to lead the reengineering portion of the project.

“The success of that effort was and is remarkable,” Khayat said. “The challenge was met and handled without interruption, with the transition being virtually seamless.”

Archive Photo: Larry Sparks, serving as the university’s interim chancellor, addresses students and faculty during the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College’s 2019 Fall Convocation at the Ford Center. Photo by Thomas Graning/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

Sparks began his tenure at Ole Miss as director of internal audit. Over the years, he was promoted to director of Project DISCOVER, the university’s administrative reengineering project.

“I’m particularly grateful for the experiences and opportunities that came from Project DISCOVER in the late ’90s,” he said. “The successful software implementation and reengineering laid the foundation and supported the 20-plus years of growth Ole Miss has experienced since then.”

Sparks then became interim director of procurement services, assistant vice chancellor for finance and associate vice chancellor for administration and finance.

“No matter what position I’ve served, I’ve always seen my role as supporting the university’s mission to fulfill its goals of education, research and service to our students,” Sparks said.

An unexpected promotion for Sparks was serving as interim chancellor between the former Chancellor Jeffery Vitter and Boyce.

Sparks discusses the honor of serving the institution in that position with a sense of pride not only for himself and his career, but also for his family. His grandfather was a brick mason in Oxford who helped construct the entrance gates to Carrier House, the campus home of the university’s chancellor.

Two generations later, as interim chancellor, Sparks passed by the very gates that his grandfather helped build – bringing his family’s legacy and commitment to the university full circle.

“The position of interim chancellor was not something I aspired to nor ever thought I would occupy,” Sparks said. “Still, it was an honor and a privilege for me to serve in the role. I believe having someone experienced and familiar with the university’s operations was truly beneficial during that pivotal time of transition.”

Another high point in Sparks’ career was when the university hosted the 2008 presidential debate between U.S. Sen. Barack Obama and the late U.S. Sen. John McCain.

“To have been a part of that was such an awesome experience,” he said. “I think that event was a great example of a team effort, which resulted in a live worldwide event coming off without a hitch and positively promoting the university.”

Influences and Role Models

Reflecting on his professional and personal influences over the years, Sparks said three men at Ole Miss stand out in his mind as role models.

“Mr. (Bob) Dowdy was a man of extreme intelligence and creativity,” Sparks said. “He trained me, answered a lot of my questions and was one of best teachers that I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with.”

Archive Photo: Larry Sparks (right), serving as the university’s interim chancellor, greets an incoming freshman at a booth during 2019 Orientation Week. Photo by Thomas Graning/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

A second role model was Sparks’ immediate predecessor, Johnny Williams.

“He had confidence in my abilities and promoted me to several positions that provided invaluable experience and opportunities,” Sparks said.

Sparks said his third role model is Morris Stocks, provost and executive vice chancellor emeritus and inaugural holder of the Patterson School of Accountancy’s Don Jones Chair. Several years ago, Stocks also answered the call to serve as interim chancellor during a time of transition.

“Dr. Stocks and I have always had a great relationship,” Sparks said. “Even when we disagreed, we never let that get in the way of our friendship. He is one of the best and most genuine people I know.”

Stocks said Sparks “is, and always has been, committed to the University of Mississippi.”

“I feel most thankful that Larry Sparks is my trusted friend,” Stocks said. “Our close working relationship was strengthened by a strong sense of respect and confidence.

“Ole Miss is a better place because of Larry Sparks’ influence. I wish him well in his retirement and look forward to a lasting friendship.”

Professional Service Commitments

A member of the executive council of the board of trustees for the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, Sparks has served on both on-site and off-site evaluation committees for the commission.

He also has been actively involved with the Southern Association of College and University Business Officers, having served as a board member and as vice chair of the Professional Development Committee and chair of the Research and Doctoral Constituency Committee. He is a member of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants and the Mississippi Society of Mississippi Public Accountants.

Sparks also served as president of the University of Mississippi Educational Building Corporation and as a university representative on the Joint Committee on Investments, which oversees the endowments for the university, its Medical Center and the UM Foundation. He is also a member of the IHL-UMMC Partnership and Affiliation Review Committee and a former member of the UM Foundation Audit Committee.

Keeping Students the Main Thing

As Sparks prepares to retire from his career at his beloved alma mater, he offered a few words of wisdom gleaned from his own experiences to his future successor.

“Always remember that no matter what other priorities may arise, our students are the reason we are here,” Sparks said. “Always keep in perspective what is best for the university and its mission as a whole. Keep the main thing the main thing.”