In Memoriam: Dr. Polly Sparks Turner

April 20, 2023
Dr. Polly Sparks Turner Dr. Polly Sparks Turner

Polly Sparks Turner, Ph.D., M.P.H., a health and pharmacy pioneer, former academic, community volunteer and regional director of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., died March 30 at age 84. She is remembered as a caring role model, mentor and leader who touched countless lives.

“We join the hearts and hands of our sisters around the globe as we remember our 20th South Central Regional Director Dr. Polly Sparks Turner,” said an AKA statement. “Please pray for her family, friends and the Alpha Kappa Omega Chapter.

A Life of Serving God and Community with Class and Grace

On August 29, 1938, “Polly” Sparks, the second of four siblings, was born to Fredricka Powell Sparks and Orestus Samuel Sparks in their Studewood Addition family home in Houston, Texas. Their nurturing neighborhood was part of the historic city of Independence Heights, Texas, the first Texas city incorporated by African Americans. The entire extended Sparks family attended the nearby Ebenezer United Methodist Church where Polly was active in many of its services and programs.

Polly was the dainty classmate pictured in the framed photos from the James D. Burrus Elementary and Junior High Schools. In tenth grade, she and her sister, Ina Raye, followed in their father’s footsteps to attend Fifth Ward’s Phillis Wheatley Senior High School. With HISD segregation intact, the sisters were allowed to attend Wheatley although Booker T. Washington High, where their brothers Oliver and Jim would later attend, was much closer. Attending Wheatley required they make the extra fifty-minute bus commute through downtown every day. At the bus stop, Polly met a new friend, a handsome older schoolmate named Oddis Calvin Turner, who was impressed by this classy sophomore. Popular at Wheatley, Polly was crowned 10th-grade attendant to Miss Wheatley and Miss Cosmopolitan. She was a majorette and unofficial sweetheart of the Wildcats Basketball team.

Upon graduation in 1955, Polly followed the educational inspiration of her parents and attended Texas Southern University, earning a Bachelor of Science degree from the TSU College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences. It was at TSU that Polly and Oddis, a talented keyboard musician and nutrition sciences major, became engaged. The young couple married at the family’s beloved Ebenezer United Methodist Church in 1962 and spent their first years as newlyweds in Seattle, Washington, Killeen, Texas, and San Antonio, Texas, as Oddis fulfilled his military duties of Captain in the United States Army. They began their professional careers in San Antonio, working together at Bexar County’s Robert B. Green Hospital. Polly worked in the Pharmacy Department, and Oddis was Head of Dietetics. The fun-loving Turners often hosted friends in their San Antonio Timilo Street home with the warmth and openness that would define their many loving, long-term friendships for decades to come.

As a pharmacist, Polly continued to break racial barriers. She became the first African American Director of Pharmacy Services at Beaumont City Hospital as well as at Twelve Oaks Hospital and Doctors Hospital, once they moved to Houston. By 1978, Polly became the First African American Bureau Chief for the City of Houston Health and Human Services Department and the Office of Evaluation Services for its Health Center Administration. As head of all City Health Clinics in 1980, Polly developed its first appointment system and other new administrative procedures. Determined to be the ultimate public health professional, Polly continued her educational pursuits, receiving her master’s and doctorate degrees by 1999 from The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, School of Public Health. She was the first in her family to earn a doctorate degree.

Throughout her professional career, Dr. Polly was determined to make a difference in the lives of young people. She was a tenured Associate Professor at the Texas Southern University College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, served as Chairman of the Health Sciences Department and served as Assistant Vice President of Alumni Affairs. Her many creative fundraising efforts included the elegant “Three of Us” series of galas of friends, and the establishment of five endowed scholarship funds at both TSU and UT Health Science Center. The collective fundraising resulted in over a million dollars in contributions for education that continues to support students to this day. As a professor, she inspired thousands of students – often anxious about the rigors of science and challenges of financial demands. As an Advisory Board member, she mentored high schoolers at the Young Women’s College Preparatory Academy. During her TSU retirement ceremony in April 2007, testimonies of gratitude were made over and over to Dr. Polly about her inspiration.

In 1973, Polly was inducted into Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated – another ardent commitment of service. She held more than twenty positions, including Alpha Kappa Omega Chapter President, and the 20th South Central Regional Director. She focused on community projects, the organization of chapters, and foundation fundraising. She loved AKA and AKA loved Polly, with members dancing in tulle tutu skirts on her front lawn to celebrate her birthdays. Her fifty-year anniversary recognition on March 26, 2023, was the last of scores of Alpha Kappa Alpha events she hosted with class and grace, the last award received from her cherished sorority.

Polly originated ways to help her community. Among her many affiliations, she was active with the Museum of Fine Arts – Houston, a dedicated member, officer, and committee chair in The Links, Incorporated, Missouri City Chapter, and a charter member of the Houston Chapter of the Girl Friends, Incorporated. She was a member of Top Ladies of Distinction, winning its “Community Service Leaders Making a Difference” award. As a member of Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church, she worked for many years with the Courtesy Corps, Cancer Ministry, Family Connection, and in the Women’s Guild, serving in many positions and chairing its major fundraiser, the Annual Audrey H. Lawson Impact Awards Luncheon and Fashion Show, with over a thousand attendees. Polly’s determination to help others was unparalleled. Many community organizations and groups, professional organizations, advisory boards, and public health associations were the beneficiaries.

Although Polly was busy with career and community, her love of God and her family came first. Her devotion to Oddis, the two families that became one, the friends that became family, collaboration in every program and project, their planning of events, vacations, and visits – all showed her priorities. With Oddis’ passing, Polly carried on the many loving traditions – checking on everyone, supporting everybody- all the time. Polly held her friend’s hand in the delivery room while her husband was away on duty. Her home was a fun house for teen weekend getaways and fish fries; she was a Godmother thrice; and she distributed food to neighbors in stressful times and during holiday seasons.

Her dedication to family – her siblings, her nieces, and nephews, her cousins, and her friends — continued until God said its time to rest. God allowed her twelve miraculous years beyond a typically fatal diagnosis because He knew she still had so much to give.

Polly did things simply out of the kindness in her heart, and never realized how much she inspired everyone. Polly’s joy and enthusiasm were illuminated by her beautiful smile and wave.

Polly was preceded in death by her husband, Dr. Oddis Calvin Turner; her father, Orestus Samuel Sparks; her mother Fredricka Estelle Powell Sparks; sister, Ina Ray Sparks Hayden; brother, Oliver Wendell Sparks; and nephew, Kent Gerard Sparks. She leaves to carry her legacy her brother, James Weldon Sparks and his wife, Bobbie Anderson Sparks; great uncle, David Lee Powell; sister-in-law, Ernestine Turner Bryant, all of Houston, TX; nieces, Sandra Bryant Williams of Houston, TX, Freda Sparks of Sacramento, CA, Fredricka Sparks Recasner of Los Angeles, CA, and Tracy Deion Hayden of Houston; nephews, Thomas Ray Hayden, of Houston, TX, Jonathan Sparks of Los Angeles, CA, Rodney Sparks of Grand Prairie, TX, Jason Ashley Sparks and Oliver Orestus Sparks, both of Houston, TX; and a host of great nieces and nephews, great, great nieces and nephews, and many loving cousins, family members, and friends.