It's immediately evident when entering their home that Dr. Keats and Mrs. Elizabeth Sparrow treasure their roots. Their walls are adorned with centuries of North Carolina history, particularly of eastern North Carolina-plaques, paintings, and artifacts tell tales of their shared heritage here in their homeland.
"When I completed my PhD at the University of Kentucky, I had many opportunities to pursue my teaching career elsewhere, at institutions more prestigious in name," says Dr. Keats Sparrow, '64 BA, '65 MA, former English professor, department chair, and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. "But the choice to return to ECU was easy. We are forever connected to this place. I saw it as an opportunity to contribute to what ECU represents for all of eastern North Carolina." Elizabeth, '75, '76, was an ECU business education instructor for 13 years.
Sparrow retired in 2005 after nearly 35 years of service to ECU, yet he and Elizabeth continue to support the university's future. Their most recent contribution is a $100,000 life insurance policy in the name of their daughter. "We thought this was such an interesting approach to giving," he says.
Upon donating their existing policy, the Sparrows made ECU the irrevocable owner and beneficiary, thus eliminating it from their taxable estate. They also earned an income tax deduction roughly equal to the policy's cash value and have future relief, as forthcoming premiums are tax deductible. Gifts of life insurance fulfill two goals- they enable donors to make more substantial gifts, and they allow donors to preserve their estates for their retirement and family members.
Once this policy's proceeds become available, they will be divided in half to endow the existing W. Keats Sparrow Research Award and to create the W. Keats Sparrow North Caroliniana Endowment, both at Joyner Library. For years, the annual W. Keats Sparrow Research Award has honored the top three students for exemplary research papers. The award, named by the Friends of Joyner Library, presently is funded on an ad hoc basis.
"Liz and I wanted to ensure indefinite funding for this award by endowing it," says Sparrow. "Research is essential to any institution of higher learning. Faculty and student research are part of what propels a university forward. "I was privileged to be at ECU during a time of great change, when the institution began its swift ascent from a comprehensive college to a doctoral-research university," he continues. "I couldn't have asked for a more exciting time to work at ECU. The movement was always forward, always gaining momentum."
The institution's ascent began in 1960 when Leo W. Jenkins became college president. His vision was clear-to transform the institution into a vital resource for the poorly neglected flatland. "He was a great visionary leader, one of the most influential eastern North Carolinians of all time," says Sparrow, who worked with Jenkins to better the quality of life for all eastern North Carolinians through ECU's growth.
"ECU began focusing on providing the region with excellent teaching graduates, creating a cultural resource by launching schools of art, theater, and dance," says Sparrow. "But perhaps Leo's strongest contribution was creating the medical school here." Before ECU's medical school began admitting its first students in 1977, eastern North Carolina was one of the most medically underserved regions in the entire country.
After Jenkins' death, Sparrow continued his mentor's legacy. As Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Sparrow was instrumental in the creation of nearly a dozen doctoral programs, where none before had existed. These programs began attracting excellent researchers, who brought in substantial federal grant funding. "ECU," he says, "is now the think tank for eastern North Carolina."
But part of Sparrow's vision for ECU and the region lies in its rich history. That's why he and his wife are creating the $50,000 W. Keats Sparrow North Caroliniana Endowment at Joyner Library. The endowment's annual earnings will allow the library to acquire such rare North Carolina literary and historical materials as manuscripts, journals, books, and maps.
"The eastern part of this state was the dominant region for the better part of two centuries," Sparrow says. "Over time, it lost its standing and has never regained its stature."
To this day, Sparrow continues to revitalize his homeland by focusing on the state's historical roots. He serves on the Tryon Palace Commission, the Historic Bath Commission, and the Lenoir County Colonial Commission, to name a few.
His passion for eastern North Carolina is apparent as he talks about his and Elizabeth's ancestors, who date back to circa 1700 in the region, and the state's earliest settlers-the first English colonization attempt at Roanoke Island in 1585. In fact, Sparrow was instrumental in having the College of Arts and Sciences named for a key figure of this effort-Thomas Harriot. A print of Harriot's portrait hangs prominently in the Sparrows' home, as does a reproduction watercolor of one of the New World's natives, painted by John White (grandfather of Virginia Dare) as he accompanied Harriot on his first scouting missions around the region.
Sparrow, a Kinston native, and wife Elizabeth, a Farmville native, have dedicated their hearts and lives to their alma mater and their deepseeded home in the lowcountry.
"I was fortunate to discover early on that as dean I could do a lot of terribly important things for ECU and for the entire region," says Sparrow. "I can hardly imagine a career more exhilarating and satisfying; it was a wonderful ride. That's why I feel an obligation to support ECU."
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