CELEBRATING A LIFE WELL LIVED
Barry Buckner Sparks, Jr. was the eldest of four children born in Clayton, N.J. on August 10, 1930 to the late Barry Sparks, Sr. and the late Florence Hicks. The family moved to Albany, NY and united with Bethany Baptist Church founded in part by his great, great grandmother, Sarah Andrews.
Barry received his early education in Albany Public Schools through the 11th grade. Despite never receiving a high school diploma, he remained a student of life and educated himself through reading newspapers, trade journals, training manuals and networking with other professionals as much as possible. He was naturally gifted with the mind of an engineer and an entrepreneur, which served him well as this teenager grew from hustling shoe shines in Arbor Hill to becoming one of the most successful business owners in the City of Albany.
In 1947, while in high school, Barry’s best friend Thomas “Tommy” Underdue’s sister Edna had just moved to the area from Gaston, NC to make a new start and he asked if Barry could help introduce her around. After meeting and spending time with Edna, Barry soon realized that feelings were growing and asked his buddy if he wouldn’t mind if they dated. Tommy gave his blessing, like quickly turned to love, and the teenagers found out a baby was soon on the way. As the story goes, young Barry didn’t hesitate to propose and looked forward to raising a family with his beloved “Ed”. In one week, he quit high school on a Wednesday, got a job on Thursday and married Edna on Friday, April 8th, which just happened to be her birthday. Baby Brenda was born later that year in 1949 and the rest is Sparks family history.
That “quick job” he took to feed his young family was pressing clothes for Mr. Cannon at 3rd & Swan Streets. Barry worked hard and learned that he liked the business. He was a sharp dresser and clean clothes were important, and he wore a shirt & tie almost every day. When Mr. Cannon retired, he offered to sell the business to Barry, who didn’t really think he was ready but took the leap of faith and borrowed a few hundred from another local business owner to buy out the cleaners for 1,200. He became full owner in 1952 at just 22 years old. At a time when most dry cleaners were primarily tailor shops, he and Edna taught themselves to tailor garments and offered the service to customers. From day one his wife worked alongside him, and as the family grew the children all worked in the business, though eventually most went on to pursue other careers. Other relatives or neighborhood friends needing work could count on Barry finding a job for them. The second location on 2nd & Swan (currently Arbor Hill park) was lost to accidental fire around the time Barry Sr. (“Pancake”) passed away. Distraught, young Barry was sitting near the corner looking sad when a Nun from St. Joseph’s school across the street saw him and stopped to encourage him. She knew his family and knew about the fire. She encouraged Barry to “Stop moping and get the business back”! He took her advice, put a deposit down on the building across the street at Second & Swan, and Rite Cleaners (also simply called “Sparks’ Cleaners” by locals) became part of the fabric of Arbor Hill and the City of Albany for the next 45+ years. As one of the first establishments to have a full plant on premises, Barry learned to maintain machinery & equipment and became an engineer of sorts, handling most repairs himself, with help from friends & family. An astute businessman, he made great use of the building by creating apartments above it and a “fast food” carry out on the ground floor, popular for its mini hot dogs and ice cream. Every few years the business grew…and the family grew. The 80’s brought a shift in fashion to more “wash & wear” clothing and Barry decided to move the main plant to Wolf Road where business travelers created more demand for drycleaning. The store was so busy it needed a faster way for customers to drop off/pick up orders, so Barry created a drive-thru entrance, the first of its kind for dry cleaners. Over the span of 50+ years Barry and Edna raised 8 children and with their family operated 17 locations all over the city, with 7 stores in operation at the same time.
Entrepreneurship was important to Barry, but equally as important was to help to grow the business community in Albany by bringing along others to do the same. Countless residents can recall a time when he went out of his way to support them by providing employment, advice, contacts or just free drycleaning for families preparing to lay loved ones to rest. He was consistently active in service to Albany through various community organizations such as; Chair of the Albany County Regional Chamber of Commerce/Minority Business Council; Founder of the Capital District Business and Professional Association; Founding Board Member of Whitney M. Young, Jr. Health Clinic in Arbor Hill, Founder of the Black New Breeds, a traveling entertainment troupe to empower youth in the arts; Member & Past President of Albany Interfraternal Council, Capital City Lodge #78 and the Shriners, Member of the Urban League of Upstate NY; the NAACP, the Quarterback Club, Kingsmen Club, and Member of the Board of the National Cleaners Association where he had taken development courses to stay on top of trends in his field. Barry’s strong commitment to community also led him to local politics, having run for Alderman of the 5th Ward in the 1980’s. Although he didn’t win the election, he continued to work tirelessly for fair treatment and business empowerment for the residents of Arbor Hill, and in 2015 was bestowed the honor of having the block of 2nd street between Swan and Ten Broeck Streets renamed Barry B. Sparks, Jr. Way. To commemorate the occasion, Mayor Kathy Sheehan and the City of Albany designated October 29th 2015 to be “Barry Sparks, Jr. Day”.
In 1999 Barry & Edna decided to scale the business back and focus more on their work in the church community. After closing the main plant, Barry took on part time work with the Hilton corporation and enjoyed working for over 10 years at the Hampton Inn, every day sharing a kind word, cracking funny jokes and talking Arbor Hill history with people he met along the way.
As lifelong members of Bethany Baptist Church, Barry & Edna were ordained Deacon and Deaconess together in 2001 and served the church community proudly in various capacities. Barry served for several years as Deacon Board Chairman and President of the Laymen’s Auxiliary of the Hudson River Frontier Missionary Baptist Association. He remained steadfast in faith and service to Bethany and his family until the very end. He never missed the chance to remind people, “Today is a Good Day to Praise the Lord!”
Barry was preceded in death by his parents, Barry (‘Pancake”) Sparks, Sr. and Florence Hicks; his sister, Ruth, sister, Bertha Dent; beloved brother George, eldest daughter Brenda Renee, Granddaughter Quadraya Sparks and Grandson Samad Cromwell.
Memories of Barry will be cherished by his wife Edna Sparks of Latham, NY; Daughter/Niece Phyllis Chambers (Sherman); Brother-in-Law Benjamin Dent; his children, Linda Sparks of Baltimore, MD; Donna “Oasis” Sparks, Barry B. Sparks III (Michelle), Patricia Sparks, Curtis Sparks, all of Albany, NY and Sonya Marchand (Mitchell) of Los Angeles, California; Grandchildren Rilenda Darnell, Mia (Don), Elias, Myles, Coltrane, Brielle; Great-Grandchildren Briana, Donnell (Anna), James, Melia and Emani; and Great-Great-Grandchildren Maliha and Bilal, along with a host of loving nieces, nephews, other family members and cherished lifelong friends.
Our Sincere Thanks to Melinda Sparks, the staff and friends at King Thiel community and Evergreen Nursing and Rehabilitation Center for their loving support and care for Barry over the years. You are appreciated.