After 25 years in the Air Force, Colonel Randall Sparks may be retiring from active duty, but he is still answering the call to serve his community.
When school started at Farmington High School on Wednesday, Sparks began manning his post as the commander of the Air Force Junior ROTC program, replacing a retiring Lt. Colonel Stephen Wenninger after 19 years of service to the district.
“I was flattered but a little intimidated coming in after Col. Wenninger had been here for so long,” Sparks said. “I knew I had some pretty big shoes to fill. Then, when we met, there was a sense of relief from both of us. I was pleased he felt he was handing the program over to a good person and sensed that in me.”
During his military career, Sparks’ career was in communications - what is now referred to as cyber.
“In the old days, it was called communications - computers, networks, phones, radar, all kinds of tech – that was my career field,” Sparks said. “When you are a colonel, you have more of an executive position.”
But after spending most of his life in the military - first as a cadet at the Air Force Academy, and then working his way to his present rank - Sparks was ready to retire and begin another chapter in his life.
“I didn’t feel like I was done serving, even after 25 years in the Air Force,” Sparks said. “I felt like I still had something to offer. I wanted to keep serving and still have that military affiliation I can hold on to and keep wearing the uniform.”
During the latter part of his career, one aspect he enjoyed was working with the young airmen not only as their colonel but as a mentor as well.
“The one thing I really enjoyed, particularly later, was imparting the wisdom and the knowledge I have with the airmen,” Sparks said. “I liked sitting down with them, talking to them and mentoring them.”
It was that instinct to teach and to mentor those just starting their military career that pulled Sparks toward JROTC programs.
"I spent a lot of time coaching my daughters’ basketball and softball teams," Sparks said. "There were days when my daughters weren’t at practice and I still had fun. Additionally my wife and I were youth pastors, so I had done this before.”
Fortunate for Farmington High School, the only JROTC program available in Missouri was Farmington, which fit perfectly for Sparks who was originally from Union, Missouri.
“I feel a connection here in Farmington,” Sparks said. “When I meet with these young kids, I can tell them I come from the same place you do, the same upbringing, the same community and the same state. There were really a lot of potential limits because of my upbringing, but along the way, people encouraged me and said there really doesn’t have to be any limitations.”
According to Sparks, it was following the advice and encouragement of those who people that led him to the academy and a successful military career that led him to the rank of colonel.
As the new mentor of the JROTC program settles in to his new position, Sparks said his goals are first making a connection with his students.
“The curriculum is really not an issue. It’s a military curriculum and I have been doing that for 25 years,” Sparks said. “It’s really about connecting with the kids as early and as deep as I possibly can.”
Sparks sees his program not only as an academic program but more about mentoring and coaching program.
“This program is designed to be less about academics and more about coaching and character development,” Sparks said. “This program is designed around coaching, character development, life preparation and just making better citizens. These kids are going to have a future. I want to help the make it a good one.”
In addition to starting a new career, Sparks and his wife of 25 years, Suzanne, and his two daughters, Jennifer, 19, and Joy, 16, are entering unfamiliar territory - buying a home.
“My wife will tell you we have moved 13 or 15 times during the 25 years we have been married,” Sparks said. “This time when I was unpacking, we had to do a lot of sorting. Now I was putting things away for five (years), 10, 15, maybe forever. We have never done that before.”
Sparks added that he thought Farmington High School and he were a match made in heaven and that was why they bought a home instead of renting. It was time, he said, to put down roots and become an active member of the community.