Special to the Daily News
It was standing room only for the Chamber of Commerce Citizen of the Year event on Sunday. About 110 members of the community plus friends and family from across the state and beyond turned out to honor the two retired Dentists and enjoy cake and refreshments. The event was also streamed live on the Chamber of Commerce Facebook page, and saved there.
Dr. Riggs and Carol Sparks (Dr. Bob’s widow) were presented with plaques, and also a special picture by past Chairman of Economic Development Bascom Sorrell. The picture showed the two men building beds for the “Build a Bed Program”. FRYSC Director Paula Hunter applies for beds for children in the county who are sleeping on the floor or a couch each year through Morehead University. This past year the county received (12) beds and Dr. Sparks and Riggs build (18) more to make sure no family that applied for a bed went without.
The presentation speech was give by Chamber President Tracy Pratt-Savage. For those that missed it, here is the presentation from the event written by Chamber past-President Steve Scalf….
Our story today begins in Pikeville. Although Bob Sparks and Leon Riggs were in the same grade and know OF each other, they really didn’t become well acquainted until their senior year.
After returning from military service, since they both had a shared interest in engineering, the two young men decided to attend college together and attended the University of Pikeville where they majored in Math and Chemistry.
They would study together, carrying around a large blackboard with them so they could work out their problems and check each other’s work.
“We never had Chemistry in high school,” Dr. Riggs explained. “They didn’t offer it so we didn’t know the first thing about it.”
During their freshman year, it didn’t take long for Bob and Leon to discover that the food at the university hospital’s cafeteria offered a better variety of food and it became their habit to eat there and to continue studying as they ate.
One day a pathologist came over and asked what they were doing. He saw their work in Chemistry and invited them to come to the lab to show them how Chemistry REALLY works. He drew some of their blood, showed them how to test the blood type, and then showed them what happens when you mix two different blood types together.
“We were planning on being engineers, but this was exciting, seeing how Chemistry works inside the human body,” Dr. Riggs continued.
The pathologist hired them to work in the hospital lab and before long they were running the lab on weekends – the only two in the lab.
Bob and Leon were practically inseparable, even rooming together until the summer between their junior and senior year, when Leon married Ginger in June; Bob marrying Carol in December of that same year.
Their fascination with their work in the lab convinced both of them to pursue medical certification upon graduation so they prepared a form letter, changing just the heading to the various universities and began sending them out to Louisville, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, and others. They heard from a university in West Virginia and drove all night on curvy roads to get to the interview, only to be told, “Sorry boys, we aren’t accepting any out-of-state students this year.”
Then they got a call from the University of Louisville, and after going there for an interview they were accepted into the School of Dentistry.
The G.I. Bill helped them through their first four years of school, but Bob and Leon received additional scholarships for graduate school, and one of them required them to serve in a community that needed a dentist. After graduation they began looking throughout Kentucky for a place to practice, visiting Florence, London, Corbin, Carlisle, and other places.
“When we got to Carlisle, we saw a sign over the road that said, ‘Welcome to the Little Town with the Big Heart,’ and that really impressed us,” said Dr. Riggs.
They arrived in Carlisle during the Blackberrry Festival in 1962. Dr. Hutchison had a practice upstairs over the Deposit Bank, but had had a heart attack. He invited them to his home and made them feel very welcome. They met people throughout the community and realized that Carlisle was their kind of people.
“It was the people who brought us here, and the people who kept us here,” Dr. Riggs explained.
Dr. Riggs and Dr. Sparks practiced together for 41 years, helping every patient who came in their doors whether they could pay or not.
When Dr. Riggs learned that they had been selected as the Chamber’s Citizen of the Year, he said he was really shocked, feeling there were so many others more deserving. But there are very few lives in Nicholas County that weren’t impacted in some way by these two men.
Early on, the two dentists approached the county fiscal court about adding fluoride to the water. The county judge and the magistrates pushed back initially, worried about possible negative health effects. Joe Frank Conley, the county attorney at the time spoke up and said, “Look, these boys know what they’re saying. We ought to listen to them.” The fiscal court was convinced and approved adding fluoride to the water.
“That was one of the best things we did for this county,” Dr. Riggs recalled. “Five years later, you couldn’t find a cavity in first graders who had access to the treated water.”
And Drs. Riggs and Sparks would know, since they provided the dental check-ups for all the children as they entered school…
…Which leads us to the next impact on the county: The County didn’t really have a health department building of its own. While attending Pikeville, the two had become friends with Mrs. Patton, the wife of Gov. Paul Patton – a friendship that continued after graduation. They would socialize together, attend ballgames, etc.
Bob encouraged Gov. Patton to hire a friend, John-Mark Hack, to his staff, where in addition to other duties, John-Mark wrote Gov. Patton’s speeches.
One year, Kentucky had several millions in surplus to distribute to the counties. John-Mark called Dr. Sparks and told him to fill out a request form, and the request went in for funds to build a health department building. John-Mark received several other requests from other counties, but made sure Nicholas County’s request was at the top of the stack. Additionally, he had John-Mark give the form to Gov. Patton’s secretary, another friend named Sally Davis, who handed the form directly to the governor and got it approved.
Through these same connections, they were also able to secure funding for the Sycamore Hill Apartments, including the additional funds for the recent construction of an additional building.
In 1962, Dr. Riggs and Dr. Sparks also joined the Carlisle Rotary Club, receiving their 50 year service pins in 2012. Through the years they provided countless hours of service, organizing programs to benefit the citizens of Nicholas County. Dr. Riggs became the district governor – an honor held by very few – and served with great distinction. He was key in Carlisle’s club becoming active in sponsoring Rotary exchange students, and even adopted the student from Thailand that stayed in their home, helping her return to America and to receive a college education.
Both men were strong supporters of the Backpack Program administered by FRYSC Director Paula Hunter. 120 Nicholas county students are sent home with food each weekend so they don’t go hungry. The program started in Nicholas County is funded entirely by private donations. We receive no funding from local, state of national government.
Even though, Dr. Riggs remains characteristically humble about their being selected as the Chamber of Commerce Citizen of the Year, it would truly be challenging to find any two other people who have adopted Carlisle as their home and then given so much back, and had such a lasting influence for good in the lives of so many people. The community is forever improved because of the decision of these two outstanding men to establish their practice here and to make Carlisle their home.