Jane Droppa ’70 and Alex Kershaw
"Put your hands up if you know a bit about World War II,” the distinguished journalist and best-selling author Alex Kershaw asked at the start of last month’s riveting Upper School News. When a number of students raised their hands, he nodded and said, “I’m about to tell you a story about a remarkable young American.”
For the next 40 minutes, Mr. Kershaw unspooled the heroic and heartbreaking tale of Felix Sparks, whose family’s poverty in Depression-era Arizona forced him to abandon dreams for a bright future and set out on his own, eventually enlisting in the U.S. Army, a decision that had profound and devastating consequences and changed his life forever.
The author of a dozen war-related books including “The Liberator” on which this talk was based, Mr. Kershaw also serves as a Resident Historian for the Friends of the National WWII Memorial, a non-profit organization. Chapin alumna Jane Droppa ’70 chairs the Memorial’s Board of Directors and kindly helped facilitate Mr. Kershaw’s visit. Upper School News President Isabelle Thym introduced him.
After serving for two years in Hawaii, Mr. Kershaw told the students, Felix Sparks returned to Arizona to belatedly attend college in Tucson, where he fell in love with a classmate named Mary. Military trainings continued every summer until events abroad began to escalate.
In 1940, as Hitler’s destruction intensified, Sparks was called to active duty. “He went to Europe and saw combat at age 24,” said Mr. Kershaw, noting that he had left behind his wife who was pregnant. Mr. Kershaw clicked on a black-and-white photograph of the happy couple. “Which Shakespeare play is he reciting lines from?” he asked.
“Romeo and Juliet!” a student answered correctly. The audience would also discover that Sparks always kept a photo of Mary with him, tucked inside the handle of his gun.
The conversation turned more serious when Mr. Kershaw described the War’s human toll and the hundreds of thousands of Americans who died setting Europe free, a fact that is particularly poignant for him. “I consider myself European,” he explained, adding that he was born in England and lived half his life there before moving to the U.S. He currently resides in Washington, D.C.
Felix Sparks rose quickly through the Army ranks, the students learned. When he was promoted to Brigadier General, he had more than 800 officers under his command and felt deeply responsible for each one. “Why would you keep fighting? Why would you carry on?” Mr. Kershaw asked rhetorically. “Because of love. Their bond was so powerful.”
With a map of Europe illuminated behind him, the speaker talked about the relentless, months-long efforts of the Allied troops. Tragically, nearly all of Sparks’ soldiers died in Italy and France before the squad crossed the border into Germany. It was here, Mr. Kershaw stressed, that General Sparks experienced an extraordinary and transformative challenge: “He was ordered to take Dachau.”
Photos of General Sparks – who had by then “lost 60 pounds and had barely slept in 500 days” – at the Dachau concentration camp appeared on the screen along with shots of his remaining troop members (amazingly, there was a cameraman chronicling the unfolding events, Mr. Kershaw pointed out). “I want you to look at these images very carefully. What would you have done if you had lost so many of your friends?” he said, referring to his deceased comrades.
Under his expert leadership and “with compassion, decency and humanity,” General Sparks helped liberate Dachau on April 29, 1945. The photograph of the freed prisoners, their joy unmistakable, said it all. “They had a life again,” Mr. Kershaw exclaimed. “They had hope!”
Before General Sparks passed away in 2007 at 90, Mr. Kershaw had the honor of interviewing him, as well as his wife, Mary (who died in 2018), their son, Kirk, and a few of the World War II veterans still living. He described Sparks as “a man of massive spirit, intelligence and emotional strength,” adding that “his grief never left. He never recovered.”
The final photo Mr. Kershaw showed was of General Sparks and 14 fellow officers at a reunion, dapperly dressed in jackets and ties. “This incredible group of people is dying off. By the time you are out of college, they will all be gone,” he told the students.
As applause filled the room, this impassioned and knowledgeable journalist, author and captivating Upper School News speaker grinned widely. “Thank you very much for listening. I hope you have a great spring break.”