Memory of Soldier Sparks Giving
It was a warm summer evening in 1966 when 11-year-old Cathie Betts Fowler faced her fear of riding the Tilt-A-Whirl.
She was at the Glidden, Iowa, street fair with her twin sister, Connie Betts Mills, and their friend Esta Sparks under the supervision of Esta's big brother, Donald.
Don, who was home on break from Iowa State, eased Cathie's trepidation by offering to go on the ride with her. "I just remember that he was so nice," said Fowler. "When you're a sixth-grader and look up to this college boy, you get a little crush, at least for the evening."
That night no one imagined Don would face an enemy ambush in Vietnam three years later, and the details of his ultimate fate would remain unknown to this day. Don grew up with Esta and two other siblings on a farm in Glidden, where he was active in the FFA and 4-H. A fun-loving kid and talented student at Glidden- Ralston High School, Don enjoyed going to basketball games with friends and teaching his little sister how to drive a tractor.
He attended Iowa State on an Army draft deferment and did well in his classes, receiving a bachelor's degree in farm operations management in 1968. Soon after graduating, he was drafted and went to basic training.
On June 17, 1969, Don and another soldier were leading their platoon through hostile territory near Chu Lai when they were ambushed. The two soldiers lay under heavy enemy fire for almost 12 hours as the enemy thwarted attempts to reach them. Don was presumed dead and listed as missing in action.
Then nearly a year later, American soldiers discovered a Viet Cong soldier carrying two letters from Don dated April 11, 1970, 10 months after it was thought he had died. One of the letters was to his parents in Glidden.
This began a decades-long search to discover what happened to Don. Reports indicate he survived the ambush and became a prisoner of war. While the U.S. Department of Defense has provided the Sparks family with the few facts known about Don's time as a prisoner — including a story of how he tried to escape but was recaptured — the trail of his fate has disappeared. A military tribunal ruled in 1979 that Sparks died in captivity.
"Growing up in the '60s, you were very aware of the local guys being drafted to go to Vietnam," said Fowler. Her family and the Glidden community have shared the heartbreak felt by the Sparks family during these long, uncertain years.
As she grew up, left home, earned a bachelor's degree in nursing and got married, Fowler always knew she wanted to do something to commemorate Don's sacrifice.
The idea came to her when she was establishing a scholarship in memory of her sister, who received a bachelor's degree in journalism from Iowa State in 1976. Connie passed away in 2005. Although Cathie didn't attend Iowa State, she has fond memories of visiting Connie and their older brother, Ron Betts (B.S. 1970, Ph.D. 1978 biochemistry and biophysics), in Ames and going to basketball games at Hilton Coliseum.
Cathie was working with the Iowa State University Foundation's office of gift planning on an estate bequest to create the Connie Betts Memorial Scholarship and the Cathie Betts B.S.N. Scholarship when she recognized "the something" she could do for Don.
Cathie also established the Donald L. Sparks Gold Star Memorial Scholarship for Iowa State students from Carroll County studying agriculture-related fields, much like Don. Along with the scholarship funds, student recipients will receive the story of Don's life and service to his country.
"I want his sacrifice in Vietnam to never be forgotten," said Fowler of her former Tilt-A-Whirl companion. "I want future generations to walk through the Gold Star Hall and think of him. If they see his name on the wall and they have the scholarship in his name, his legacy will live on."
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