Sunday, December 09, 2007


Valiantly, I struggle on with my boxes and boxes of things to file! In the process I find interesting things. Recently a little memorial bulletin showed up, so I will type it into this blog. Then others can find it, too.

When I was in high school, Melba was my major role model, though we weren’t much alike. She was tall, blue-eyed with long dark hair, vigorously healthy with strong hands and fingernails. One of the stories she liked to tell on herself was a first day of school when one of the students was absolutely riveted on her hands with their long red nails. When she got to the part where she asked if students had any questions, this person shot a hand into the air immediately. Anticipating an appetite for dramatics, Melba nodded to him. “Are those fingernails real?” he wanted to know.

But I couldn’t live a life like hers: endlessly responsible and organizing, no job too small, detail too minor. Pageant after pageant, committee after committee, she never seemed to wear out. And none of it seemed trivial to her. None of the awards described were adequate to recognize her constant grace and diligence.

Melba Day Sparks Henning was born on January 4, 1915. Her father was Edward Hugh Day and Rose Meta (Fischer) Day. She died on December 24, 1993.

Melba married Victor E. Sparks on June 11, 1939. They made their home in Nevada from 1939 to 1941. They adopted two abandoned baby bobcats, Tom and Jerry. In 1942 they moved to their chartreuse house on Mallory Street in Portland, Oregon. In the early 1970’s they moved to their farm, Windy Hill, in Troutdale, OR.

On the farm they had a retired circus pony, Joey; a donkey, Betsy; two horses, GaTaya and Bobby; black caracou sheep; geese; two dobermans, Tippy and Dante; and Surprise, the calico barnyard cat. Vic died of cancer in 1977.

Melba married Otto Henning on September 11, 1982. They traveled and had many worldwide adventures. New Zealand was their first destination. While they were there they took a small plane sightseeing. The pilot landed on a glacier 1500 feet deep with a spectacular view. Next stop was Australia where they made friends with some wonderful people including the World Cricket Champion, who took them under his wing and treated them like royalty. They later traveled to London, England, and toured Shakespeare’s home. They took a cruise from Portland to Vancouver, BC in 1989 on one of the first cruise ships, the Veendam. It was fifty years to the day that Otto had cruised on the same ship as a reward from his employer. In 1990 they moved from their farm to their SummerPlace home. Otto now resides at the Heritage at Mt. Hood. (1994)

Melba was a graduate of Jefferson High School. In 1934 she was listed in Who’s Who Among Students in American Universities and Colleges. In 1935 she graduated from Pacific University, Forest Grove, Oregon, with a Bachelor of Arts, magna cum laude. She did undergraduate work at Northwestern University in Evanston, IL, on scholarship. Melba did her graduate work at University of Washington, Portland University and Portland State University. During 1935 to 1936 she also did modeling in Chicago and summer stock in Vermont. She taught modern dance at Pacific University and was Director of Recreation for girls and women at the Linnton, OR, Community center from 1935 to 1936. In 1936 Melba played Olivia in Midsummer’s Night Dream at the Oregon Shakespearean Festival. She was an instructor in dramatics at the Meglin Studios, Seattle, WA.

From 1936 to 1938 she taught at the Eagle Point, OR., High School. When she first came to Eagle Point, she lived with a saddlemaker’s family and while preparing to take her evening bath she was surprised to find a saddle soaking in the bathtub. The saddle was promptly removed for gracious Melba, but then put back after her bath. She said the experience was comic. It was the first time she had ever had to share a bathtub with a saddle.

In 1939 she taught high school in Enterprise, OR. In 1940 she was an instructor at the Civilian Conservation Corps in Westgate, Nevada. From 1940 to 1941 she was owner and teacher of a private drama and dance studio in Fallon, Nevada. During World War II, 1942 to 1945, Melba was Supervisor of the Oregon Shipyard Time Office in Portland, OR.

Melba directed over one hundred and forty-eight full-length plays and musicals, consisting of high school students and at times elementary students and adults. Her unforgettable play, “The Twelve Days of Christmas” which she wrote and directed, was one of many favorites among her students and audiences throughout her high school teaching career.

From 1945 to 1961 she taught drama at Jefferson High School, was sponsor of Thespian Troupe 124 and helped design and build the school theatre in the auditorium wing. Her office was behind the box office. In 1961 she transferred to the new Madison High School as their first drama teacher, where she sponsored Troupe 1782, and retired in 1975.

Melba served on nearly 20 international Thespian committees including scholarship, Thespian 50th Anniversary, Building, and International Troupes. 1947 to 1968 she was State Director for the Oregon Thespian Society and Chairman for Oregon Theatre Arts Conferences, 1968-1970 she was Assistant Director for the International Thespian Society, and 1970-1972 she was Director of the International Thespian Society. At this time she reorganized policies for the Thespian structure and revised DRAMATICS magazine. She was on the Board of Directors 1968-1974. In 1953, 1954, and 1957 Melba had received awards from the National Thespian Society for her play programs.

In 1956 she was Director for the National Education Association Pageant. She was State Manager and Lighting Technician for the National Principals Association Pageant in 1960 and for the National Music Educators Association Pageant in 1965. She was recipient of the Junior Achievement Award given to a Portland citizen for outstanding contributions to the achievement of youth in 1956-1957.

She was co-chair for the 1966 National Theatre Arts Conference. Through her efforts she brought the conference to Portland, OR, the only one ever held outside Indiana. At the conference she produced the pageant “Voyage of Thespis.”

Melba served as Vice President of the Professional Women’s League in 1963-1964 and President 1964-65. She was also a member of the American Education Theatre Association, Secondary Theatre Association, Children’s Theatre Association, Oregon Theatre Arts Association and Zeta Phi Eta.

In 1964 Melba was honored in the Madison High School Yearbook dedication and received Recognition of Distinguished Service.

She was narrator for the Portland Schools Music Festival in 1968.

In 1972 she was Co-Chair for the 1974 International Theatre Arts Conference at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. She also served as Hospitality Chair for the Conference in 1974.

In 1975 Melba was runner-up for Oregon’s Teacher of the Year and was listed in Who’s Who Among American Women 1974-75 and 1975-76.

In 1978 The Oregon Thespians established the Melba Day Sparks Award to be presented annually at the Oregon Thespian Conference to an individual or group who has contributed to the growth of theatre in Oregon. At the first Annual Awards for Clowns Serendipity, Melba received the Dottie Hall 1978 Citation of Merit for “Lighting Our Spark.”

Melba served as Make-up Supervisor for Rose Festival Parades and for Portland MIss America Pageants. She organized and directed youth in the Fairytale Parades and organized and directed the flag raising ceremony for Flag Day.

She was featured in articles published by DRAMATICS magazine, Portland School Bulletin, The Oregonian, Gresham Outlook, Photogravieure and Northwest Magazine. Later she wrote and directed the Portland Public School Bi-Centennial pageant, directed Clowns Serendipity, served as judge for the Scholastic All-Stars Program and directed plays for Columbia (now Reynolds) High School.

In 1991 Melba was one of the first individuals to be inducted into the Educational Theatre Association’s Hall of Fame. In 1993 she received a Certificate of Appreciation from Academic All Stars.

Melba died of cancer of the esophagus at home in 1993 on the day after Christmas. She was 78. There were no services at her request. She’s buried in Rose City Cemetery in Portland, OR.


Anonymous said...

This brought back a lot of memories. I took drama under Mrs Sparks at Madison in her last years there from '72-'75. She was an amazing person. Thanks for all the information, that I didn't know.

Anonymous said...

I didn't realize that Melba had such a colorful career before coming to Jefferson in 1945. She taught English and presented as a prim school marm in tweeds and french twist.

The next year she blossomed into the dramatic teacher and director outlined above. Talk about style - she had it in spades!

Mr. Sparks daughter-in-law recently died but his son is still living in Portland, Oregon area. For years I kept up with Melba's activities when the younger Sparks
lived in Southern California.

I recall that she once had a bad fall and broke her wrist. But knowing her, I am sure it did not
stop her from accomplishing. The list of her activities is tremendous - as was she.

A wonderful person to have known.

Anonymous said...

We called her, simply, "The Lady." She was my drama teacher at Madison 1961-64, and planted a love of theater in me that lasts to this day. I've just completed my 43rd show since I started acting again 20 years ago. She's with me every time I step on the stage or enter a rehearsal room.

Anonymous said...

Mrs Sparks changed my entire life. I hated high school, yet found my place in the drama classes and backstage world she showed me. I remember we all put our names on the wall after each performance. I loved her. She taught me the joy of performance and how not to be afraid. The cast parties we had backstage were legendary. Or so they seemed at the time. I played everything from the Virgin Mary to Estelle in No Exit. Mrs Sparks would tell such wonderfull stories in her office late in the afternoon. She showed me a whole other world and I am glad she was my teacher....Susan Stephens... Madison High School...1969-1970ch

Ted Newsom said...

I had not even thought of her name until today... when a dear friend from high school drama class (Madison... 1967-68) wrote, "Melba Day Sparks would be proud." I wish I could have thanked her. And what a marvelously-led life!

Diana Popp said...

Melba was my 2nd cousin that I just discovered through my family history research. Thank you for posting this wonderful story of her! It brings to life a woman that I never had the pleasure to know. Would it be OK if I added your post to my family history research?

Mary Strachan Scriver said...

Of course you can use anything I write about Melba. I was a little startled since I've just posted a little bit on and intend to post a longer version of that on tonight at 10PM Mtn Standard. There's lots more to say. My email is If you're googling, you'll find other posts by me.

Mary Strachan Scriver

Diana said...

Thank You Mary!! I have shared the post in the family tree and have linked it back to your blog post.