September 14, 2017
Whole Number 25
by Russell E. Bidlack
During the time I have been editing The Sparks Quarterly, several members of the Association have suggested that my picture be used on the cover of one of the issues. I have felt that this was inappropriate because my connection with the Sparks family is through marriage and not blood. Paul E. Sparks and William P. Johnson, the other officers of the Association, have insisted, however, that I owe it to the membership to reveal my visage, so I have complied. They have also demanded that I write an autobiographical sketch as well.
I was born on an Iowa farm near the town of Manilla on May 25, 1920, and am the only child of Harold Stanley and Mabel (Thompson) Bidlack. My parents' home and that of my paternal grandparents were located on the same farm, only a few steps being required to go to 'the other house.' As an only child, reared near doting grandparents, the reader may guess that I was appropriately spoiled. For my elementary school training, I attended a country school nearly two miles distant from home. For my secondary education, I attended the high school in Manilla.
My childhood was a happy one, for my parents gave me the love and affection which every child needs, and their devotion to each other gave me the quiet security which, I discovered later, many a child never knows.
Being an only child and living near grandparents, (the five of us always ate dinner and supper together in one house or the other), gave me a maturity and an interest in the activities of adults which many of my contemporaries lacked. At school picnics, for example, I preferred to listen to the conversations of people of my parents' and grandparents' generations rather than to play games with children of my own age, particularly if those grown-ups were recounting events of the "old days." My present interest in history and genealogy doubtless stems from this childhood characteristic.
I completed high school during the closing years of the Great Depression and, what was a greater worry to Iowa farmers, the drought. My future was uncertain when I attended the graduation exercises, but during the ceremonies, to my complete surprise, the superintendent announced that I had been awarded a scholarship at Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa. An N.Y.A. job and the opportunity to work for my room in the home of an old friend of the family were godsends, and my next three years were happy and exciting as I came into contact with some of the most inspiring teachers and models of character and intellectual curiosity for which a young man could ask. My chance assignment to the college library for my N.Y.A. job had a profound effect upon my future, for I soon decided that I wanted to become a librarian.
I completed my junior year in college in the spring of 1941, spent that summer studying theatre at Cornell College, and entered the U.S. Army in October. My army career was uneventful, though it lasted until January 1946. After serving on the cadre in a medical training unit at Camp Robinson, Arkansas, for two years I was assigned to the Manhattan Project and was stationed in Chicago. Although duties with the Project were administrative in nature, not scientific, I shared the secrecy and excitement which precluded the successful use of the atomic bomb
While in the army, on June 13, 1942, I married my college sweetheart, Melva Helen Sparks, daughter of Oral A. and Alice (Mace) Sparks of Clio, Iowa. Our first child, Stanley Alden Bidlack, was born while I was stationed in Chicago, on April 8, 1945.
I was discharged on January 6, 1946, and immediately we returned to Simpson to complete my degree. Upon my graduation in 1947, we moved to Michigan where I had been accepted to do graduate work in the field of Library Science at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. In all, I earned four degrees at Michigan, receiving my Ph.D. in 1954.
During my second year at the University, I was offered and accepted the position assistant to the professor who taught cataloging, Katherine E. Schultz. As a result of this unexpected opportunity, my future career again was shaped. I gradually began teaching library courses in summer school and, while working on my doctor's degree, was made an instructor. When Professor Schultz retired in 1954, I was assigned most of her courses and have remained with the University ever since, with the present rank of assistant professor.
Three more children have been added to our family while at Michigan: Martha Sue born November 25, 1948; Christopher Joel, born January 2, 1956; and Harold Wilfo born March 15, 1958.
From my childhood I have been interested in family history and remember plaguing grandparents with demands that they tell me about their ancestors. Unfortunately none of them had a very complete record of their ancestry, and it was not until I was a junior in college that I began a systematic search for records of my forebears. It was my favorite professor, Dr. Harold F. Watson, Chairman of the Engineering Department at Simpson, himself an amateur genealogist, who told me how to begin. Using the genealogical collection in the Iowa Historical Library in Des Moines, was able to trace the Bidlacks back to the immigrant ancestor who came to America in 1692. While stationed in Chicago, I made frequent evening visits to the Newberry Library, which has one of the finest genealogical and local history collections the United States, and there began working on my wife's ancestors. My father-in law was much interested in my research and gave me all the information which he had. He knew that the Sparks family from which he descended lived in Johnson County, Missouri, at the time of the Civil War and that the family had come to Missouri earlier from North Carolina. But for a while we could go no further back. It was then, in 1944, that I happened to notice in The Handbook of American Genealogy (Vol. IV, 1943) the fact that one William Perry Johnson was interested in the Sparkses of North Carolina. I wrote to him, and after exchanging two or three letters it became evident that we were both interested in the same branch of the Sparks family, a family which resided in the Rowan, Surry, and Wilkes County area prior to the Revolution. A close friendship followed, augmented by a correspondence which has literally filled reams of paper. In 1951 we got in touch with Paul E. Sparks of Louisville who, it developed, descended from this same North Carolina family, and more reams of paper began passing through the mails. The three of us formed a 'triumvirate' which, in 1953, resulted in the formation of The Sparks Family Association and the publication of The Sparks Quarterly.