Novelist Sparks a track program’s dream

Even those who aren’t fans of the love-tragedy-loss novel genre have probably heard of Nicholas Sparks. I’ve never read any of his books, but I did watch the big-screen adaptation of Message In A Bottle, which starred Kevin Costner, Robin Wright, and the late Paul Newman. I thought the film was very well done, and its cast rescued any built-in predictability that may have weighed down the plot.
Sparks has enjoyed a very successful career for a young (44 next week) novelist; he’s a man with 13 bestsellers to his credit–and whose early work was rejected by everyone at the same time he failed to gain admission to any of the law schools he applied to. Having settled in New Bern, North Carolina, Sparks has parlayed the windfall from his royalties and advances into an unusual brand of philanthropy: he’s become a major financial supporter of high-school track and field.

As this article in the Raleigh News & Observer explains, Sparks–who attended the University of Notre Dame on a full track scholarship and as a freshman ran on a relay team that set a still-standing school record, although it’s not clear which one as it’s not listed here–has donated over $1 million to New Bern High School’s athletic department, including $750,000 for a new 400-meter track. In the finest tradition of looking a gift horse up the arse, locals with a stronger passion for football and baseball are miffed that Sparks has poured so much into such a marginal sport. I’m sure they’re right–cross-country and track kids are notably poor performers in the classroom once they get to college, while NCAA football and baseball players who major in the hard sciences and make the dean’s list are a dime a dozen.
Before Sparks became involved with the program. the team had never won a track and field state championship. New Bern, which competes in Division 4A (the classification of the largest schools), has now won three straight outdoor boys’ titles and has tied for the victory in the past two indoor seasons. (Last spring, Sparks’ son Miles, then a sophomore was a member of the winning 4 x 400m relay team) Thirty-five athletes associated with Track Eastern Carolina–an elite youth track group that is not technically part of the New Bern High School team, but features many of its competitors–have won athletic scholarships. For these and other efforts, Runner’s World Magazine named Sparks one of its ten “running heroes” of 2008.
One final, interesting detail: Sparks and his wife Cathy donated $10 million to start a Christian private school in which evolution is taught.