Sparkman, 84, a
pioneer in broadcasting, died on January 15th at his home in Hazard; he was
Past President of the Kentucky Broadcaster's Association. His strong, deep
voice was easily the most recognized in East Kentucky, echoing across the
mountains for six decades. In the 1950s - Sparkman started
WSGS, the first FM station in the Coal Fields of Eastern Kentucky.
Ernest joined WKIC AM in Hazard in 1948 with
his Country Music band, the Kentucky Hilltoppers, and became an announcer
at the station in 1950. He spoke the first words on many
Kentucky stations including WTCW in Whitesburg, WTCR in Ashland, WSGS in
Hazard, and WFLE in Flemingsburg.
He built WSGS in the late 1950s when FM was still a novelty; at
that time AM radio was in vogue and most people did not even
have FM radios in their automobiles. He once promoted the new
FM station by throwing fliers over Eastern Kentucky from an airplane.
Believing that FM would be popular someday, he applied for as much power
as he could get and soon WSGS became the most powerful station in
Sparkman started the
East Kentucky Sports Network; in its heyday it fed
play-by-play of the Boy's Sweet 16 to over 20 radio stations.
Ernest called the games at the tournament for 40 years, longer than
any broadcaster in Kentucky - from 1954 until 1994 and WSGS is the
only station in the state to broadcast every game of the tournament for
the past 61 years. In a 1994 interview with Mountain Broadcasting,
two coaches praised Sparkman. "When
he did a ballgame it just had a different sound to it, a great sound.
To me, his voice was meant for basketball on the radio," former
Hazard Basketball coach Roscoe Shackleford.
Morton Combs, coach of the 1956 State Championship Carr Creek
Indians, concurred, “I always thought he [Sparkman] and Cawood Ledford
were the best broadcasters in the state.”
addition to calling basketball games, Ernest played the sport – very
His basketball career began at Carr Creek High School under
legendary coach Morton Combs.
He later played for another legend, Adolph Rupp, in 1944-45 on a
team that included future All-Americans Alex Groza and Jack Parkinson.
Sparkman recalled his time spent with Rupp in a WSGS interview in
remember Rupp calling Alumni Gym ‘Stalingrad.’
He told us we must defend it against any one who entered it.
After a grueling practice session before a game with
Notre Dame in 1945 Rupp told us, ‘After this game tomorrow
night, I want the janitor to have to come in here and spend half of his
summer vacation scraping guts off the ceiling where you boys
But there was a softer side to Rupp, according to Sparkman, “When
we traveled to New York in December of '44, it was below zero.
Before we left Lexington, Rupp noticed I was the only boy on the
team who didn't have a topcoat.
Coming from a poor family, I'd never owned one.
He must have felt sorry for me and offered me his.
I thanked him but felt embarrassed to try and wear his coat since
Rupp was broad shouldered and husky and I was 6’6” and weighed 174
through the 1944 season, it was not known if Alex Groza would
return or join the service. In
a December 2, 1944 interview with the Lexington Herald Leader, Rupp had
the following comment about Ernest and his future at the university, “if
he [Groza] did not return, the center position would be filled by Ernest
Sparkman.” In a 1977
interview with the New York Times News Service after Rupp’s
death, Groza tells the one story that Sparkman was, perhaps, best known
for during his stint at UK, “He [Rupp] was a perfectionist and that
overshadows what a great sense of humor he had.
In 1944 we came to the Garden to play and we had a reserve center
named Ernest Sparkman from Carr Creek, Kentucky.
Well, Ernie was having a terrible practice and Adolph called us all
to the center of the court and said to Sparkman, ‘Ernie, you see that
corner of the floor? I want
you to go to that corner and s—t. Then
you can go back to Carr Creek and tell the folks back home at least you
did something in Madison Square Garden.’”
much as Sparkman enjoyed basketball, his great love was radio.
Under his leadership, WSGS became an integral part of the mountain
community. He loved giving
back to the region and saw to it that WSGS did so.
Two major fund raisers each year, the Lion's Club Radio Auction and
the Senior Citizens Radio Day, have brought in hundreds of
thousands of dollars over the years; both were the brainchild of Sparkman.
WSGS received national attention when Ted Kopel, of Nightline, did a story
on a group of volunteers from Hazard who traveled to New Orleans just
days after Hurricane Katrina struck. They were accompanied by
several tractor-trailers loaded with water, food, and other supplies
from the people of Eastern Kentucky. Randy Poff, a volunteer and
deputy with the Perry County Sheriff's Department at that time, told Kopel
that all it took to get the trucks filled up was a few hours on WSGS.
Sparkman covered many memorable news stories during his long career including the 1958 Floyd County School Bus Crash that killed 26 school children. He reported from the banks of the Big Sandy River, "This, by far, is the most tragic situation that has ever taken place here in Eastern Kentucky ... tonight there are families, kids, teenage boys, and teenage girls lying at the bottom of this cold river ... it's a scene that is actually so tragic that it's hard to describe." In a 2003 interview with WYMT, Sparkman recounted one of his most difficult moments on the air, when he broke the news of John F. Kennedy’s assassination to East Kentucky. Jim Wooten, Lions Club member and Hazard businessman, said, “when Ernest’s voice came on the air, you knew it was important.”
Sparkman created the famous sign off song on WSGS and WKIC that held lasting memories for thousands of listeners. Long before children could tell time, they knew there was no more play for the day when they heard the words, "The setting sun has gone away, the day has turned to night, and now dear Lord to you I pray for tomorrow's morning light." The song was featured at the end of the broadcast day, followed by Sparkman's voice, signing off the air.
Ernest was the voice of Santa Claus, and popular characters on the radio from Grandpappy to Greasy Creek Bill.
Ernest talks about the day his life changed. Listen Ernest was first heard on the radio in 1948 as a singer on his daily radio show on WKIC. Listen Listen to the WKIC Signoff Listen to the WSGS Signoff
Ernest Sparkman is survived by his wife of 62 years, Coralee, and two sons, Faron and Shane. Although his sons are carrying on his legacy by managing and operating WSGS, it will be impossible to fill the void left by his passing. Sparkman's son, Shane, said it best, “Radio in the mountains will never be the same."
So sorry to hear about Ernest's death. We have lost two great men this past year with the loss of Ernest and my Dad, Coach Morton Combs. I have so many fond memories of our families being together in Kentucky as well as in Florida. As a child, I was always excited when the Sparkmans came up to dinner because Ernest was so very entertaining. I know how very much my Dad thought of Ernest and I would like to think that they are now talking about old basketball stories. I will always treasure the wonderful memories. Susan Combs Hammack, Duluth, Ga
I do not have a favorite story. Ernest is my favorite broadcaster of all time. I am glad that Faron and Shane will keep the tradition going. He and his family are the salt of the Earth and the cream of the crop. I am so very thankful for what Ernest did for Eastern Kentucky and for what his family continues to do. I am proud to have known Ernest. Carlene Shackelford, Hazard, Ky
I just always remember Ernest J. Sparkman. I've been away from Knott County since 1953 but have never forgotten him. Delzie Bowens' girls were all crazy about him. I could never listen to the Sweet 16 games without thinking of him. My prayers will be with the family. Peggy (Bowen) Fannin, Corydon, KY
Thinking of your family and fondly remembering Ernest. Love and prayers to all of you. Mark, Tina and Markie Fields, Hazard, KY
Sincere condolences to the Sparkman Family. Tony and Stacy Fugate, Hazard, Ky
Linda, Angie, Jessica, and Earl would like to express there deepest heartfelt sympathy to the family and hope that you find comfort in you time of need. It was a great pleasure to be part of have such a wonderful family. If there is anything you need please don't hesitate to call. God Bless. Cooley Medical, Hazard, KY
To Coralee, Faron, Shane and the entire WSGS family: My heart goes out to all of you at this time. Ernest was a pioneer, a friend, a visionary, and to me, someone to look up to as a broadcaster, which in time I became. I'm proud to have known him, and equally proud to know that the work he started continues today with your family. May God bless all of you at this time of need and comforting words. Jeff Noble former broadcaster Editor, The Times-Voice Jackson, KY
So sorry to hear of your loss. I remember the first time I met Mr. Sparkman. Tiffany and Corey were at you home in Lexington and they had so much fun. My thought and prayers are with you. We love and miss you. Druscilla Perry, Hobe Sound, Fl
I grew up in the Mountains of Perry County and remember the WKIC station. Left the Hometown many years ago. Our memories stay with forever. Hazard has lost a legend and he will be missed by so many who loved him and his family. May God give the Family and Loved Ones, the strength to endure the next few weeks of grieving. "R.I.P" Mr. Sparkman. Shirley Riddle Stacy, Peoria, Az
I am so sorry about Ernest's passing. I was out of town from Saturday morning until this (Monday) evening. Mom called me while I was gone and told me. I had you guys on my mind throughout the holidays, and hoped he was doing well. Although I don't know what you are going through, I do understand what it's like. I will keep Shane, Faron, and Coralee in my prayers, as well as the radio family. Let me know if you need anything, and again I am so sorry I missed coming to the services. Jody Sims
So sorry to hear about the
passing of Ernest Sparkman. He was a true pioneer of radio in
Eastern Kentucky and his voiced will be truly missed. I was
fortunate to work for Ernest at WKIC/WSGS beginning in the early 80's.
It was Ernest who let me branch out and start doing play-by-play for
high school basketball and football. Something I still enjoy doing
today. My thoughts go out to the Sparkman family for their loss.
Johnny L. McIntyre, Lexington, KY
I am very sorry to here about the recent loss of your
Ernest. I always had the utmost respect for him and he did a pretty good
job with the two boys also. I still listen to your station from time to
time and always think of Mr. Sparkman making such a great impact in the
mountains of eastern Kentucky. He sure did build a steep driveway
and I left a lot of skin on that drive.
My prayers and thoughts are
with the Sparkman family. I knew Ernest well and was fortunate to
have been able to spend time with him and his family on their trips to
Florida and my trips to Kentucky. Ernest was such a pioneer in
broadcasting and through this brought many opportunities to the people of
eastern Kentucky. He will be long remembered for his high school
basketball broadcasts and all that he did for eastern Kentucky and the
Hazard community. He will be sorely missed. Our prayers and thoughts are
with the entire Sparkman family. We love you all.I have MANY found memories of
Ernest but one I will always remember. I was at Shane and Kim's
house one summer visiting from Florida. Ernest and Coralee came down
to eat supper. We sat around for hours and hours talking. It
was then I realized what a happy, wonderful, intelligent, kind, sincere
and loving man he was. I would look at Coralee when Ernest spoke,
and look at Ernest when Coralee spoke and the love and admiration they had
for each other was stunning. I have never seen such love between two
people. Then Shane would tell a story and I would look at Ernest and
Coralee and I saw that same look of love and joy in their eyes listening
to Shane's story. I remember Ernest would ask Shane a question and
Shane would answer immediately and the smile Ernest gave Shane knowing he
had remembered a story once told by his father and had not forgotten
it. I have known Ernest and Coralee for years as my sister Kim is
married to their son, Shane. Ernest was a wonderful father to Shane
and my sister Kim. Kim loved Ernest as if he was her own father with
all her heart as she told me many times. I am truly blessed to have
had Ernest Sparkman in my life and experience the love and devotion he had
for his family and I thank God for that. Kathy Clark Johnson,
I am very sorry to hear about Ernest. I know he battled long and hard, and I kept hoping he would overcome his health issues. I liked and admired Ernest. He was one of those now too few broadcasters who genuinely cared for their communities and took seriously their responsibilities to operate stations in the public interest and in accordance with FCC regulations. He was a real straight shooter in the very best sense, and I had no idea he was such a visionary as well. John R. Wilner Washington, D.C.
I am so very sorry to hear about Ernest. He gave me my first break in radio, and was instrumental in my success in a career that I still enjoy. I will always be grateful. Those days at WKIC & WSGS were some of the most satisfying moments in my life. His was a life well lived. Ernest made a positive difference in many lives, and that's the most important thing any of us can do. Darwin Singleton
It was in the heyday of little league football and Moscoe, Barnett,
and myself were trying to get a good crowd to come to the football field
to watch the youngsters play their hearts out. Parents, in
particular, needed to come as they could to give their little fellers
support, and I saw Ernest one morning and told him that our little
football program needed a boost. That was all it took.
Later, he told me of his plan, and he got a flatbed, had it stationed
right in front of the courthouse and Hazard Drug. He and several
others from the station were getting it all fixed up so we could get up
there and with a microphone yell out our plea for supporters.
Ernest (I always knew him as String ) was among the first people I met when I came to WKIC IN 1948. I can't remember but he was probably on the air the first morning I went to work for WKIC,
It's funny but just last night I was on my computer playing some of the music of String and the HIlltoppers .. Some time ago while surfing the WEB I came upon the "digital library of Appalachia " from Berea college and what a surprise and joy to hear the Hilltoppers . I also appreciated hearing the voices of Hugh Dunbar and Karl Wolfe .. Every once in a while I will come down to my computer room and play a few recordings and close my eyes and I can visualize myself in the control room of WKIC and remember my days in Hazard. They were good days.-
I remember the morning when String came in to the control room and we talked about how I got into radio and where I went to school. Little did we know at that time that our conversation would lead him to Minneapolis and into his life long successful career in broadcasting. It't hard to believe that was over 60 years ago.
I am very thankful that I made the trip to Hazard with my son in 2006 and got to visit with Shane, Faron and String.. My most memorable part of the trip was going down the stairs in the People's bank building with String and visiting the old WKIC studios (at least where they use to be) and reminiscing about the people who made up the staff when I was there . My only regret is that I wish we could have stayed longer. Please keep in touch as Hazard and WKIC will always be a part of me. Max Smith (Don Smith WKIC announcer --April 1948 to October 1949)
Faron and Linda - Thinking of you and wishing you the best during this difficult time. So sorry to hear about your father. Sincere sympathy. Sharon Fugate, Lexington. KY
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