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Gary Sparks retires

Published April 29, 2020
"It’s time for me to step away and let them continue on"
Gary Sparks discusses his work to restore and expand Gallagher-Iba Arena

TULSA (April 29, 2020) – Noted Oklahoma architect Gary Sparks has retired from Sparks Reed Architecture and Interiors.


Sparks, a 55-year industry veteran and proud graduate of Stillwater-based Oklahoma State University, is most known for architectural efforts to expand, renovate, and preserve OSU’s Gallagher-Iba Arena. He also led the team that designed OSU’s Boone Pickens Stadium. His last major Sparks Reed project was to design a new home for the Wesley Foundation @ OSU – a heartfelt effort, as Sparks lived for a year in the foundation’s original building while pursuing his 1966 architectural degree.

He came out of an earlier retirement in 2011 to co-found Sparks Reed with architect David Reed and interior designer Jill Selman, Gary’s daughter. Both Reed and Selman had worked under Sparks at Sparks Architecture, which Gary sold to Conway, Ark.-based Crafton Tull in 2006. 


“In the last 10 years, Sparks Reed accomplished what we hoped and expected to do,” said Sparks, 78. “It’s been a great experience. Now I think it’s time for me to step away and let them continue on and see where they want to take the firm.”

This year, Sparks Reed will mark its 10th year of operation by renovating and moving into its new downtown Sapulpa home. The firm acquired this 5,000-square-foot brick and wood structure in March.

“Gary has been a great boss, mentor, and partner over the past 15+ years,” said Reed, principal of Sparks Reed. “He is an amazing man, and it has truly been an honor to be his partner over the last 10 years, and moreover, to call him a friend.  We wish him all the best in his retirement, and I look forward to playing golf with him soon.”

Born in Murphy, N.C., in 1941, Sparks came to Oklahoma in 1960 to seek a Keystone Dam construction job in the Tulsa suburb of Sand Springs. While he didn’t land that position, his discussions with an OSU architectural student that summer led Sparks to attend Oklahoma State University, starting a lifelong love affair with the school. Under the Gallagher-Iba rafters he also met and wooed his future wife, Jerri.


“The years I spent at OSU were life-changing years for me in many ways, not just educationally, but in the people I met,” said Sparks. “I had found a place that I could call home. I never really had that before. I spent six years in Stillwater, falling in love with the town, the people, the university, the culture, just everything it stands for. My wife felt the same way.”

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Gary Sparks 

After graduation and marriage, Sparks served two years in the U.S. Army. Honorably discharged in 1968, he started his career in Tulsa. In 1986, Sparks launched his first firm, Gary Sparks Companies.


“We were a small company, but we managed to survive the downturn in the Oklahoma economy that came in the ‘80s and early ‘90s,” said Sparks. “We were doing a lot of health care work then, a lot of churches, and some sports stuff. We were able to hang on by our fingernails.”

By that time, OSU's football and basketball facilities suffered from years of neglect. Shocked by discussions about replacing the once-famed Gallagher-Iba Arena, Sparks proposed a dramatic solution – to raise a new shell over that 6,318-seat arena to renovate and expand its structure. This, which he thought could be done while Gallagher-Iba continued operations, would increase its seating capacity to 13,611, provide all the state-of-the-art capabilities OSU desired, yet retain the arena’s historic “snake-pit” attributes fans loved. 

“We were a small company, but we managed to survive the downturn in the Oklahoma economy that came in the ‘80s and early ‘90s,” said Sparks. “We were doing a lot of health care work then, a lot of churches, and some sports stuff. We were able to hang on by our fingernails.”

Though some naysayers wondered if Sparks could pull this off, OSU gave him the contract. Completed by Manhattan Construction in 2000, the project earned widespread praise – and another makeover for Sparks, for OSU’s neighboring Lewis Field. The resulting three-phase creation of Boone Pickens Stadium opened in 2009 to national acclaim. 

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Boone Pickens Stadium and Gallagher-Iba Arena

“I was blessed to be able to come back and work on several projects for the university,” said Sparks. “People identify me with those two because of their nature and how so many people enjoy them. Knowing that I was a part of all that may make that a highlight of my career, but it doesn’t diminish any of the other projects I’ve done, no matter what size or type of clients, because they’ve all been important to me. Those two are just kind of special for what they are and how they’re visualized on a national scale.”


During these years, Sparks restructured and expanded his firm into Sparks Architecture, designer of south Tulsa’s Asbury United Methodist Church and the Oklahoma Aquarium in Jenks. Sparks takes great pride in that firm’s accomplishments and work strategy – to study their client's operations, interview stakeholders, and analyze their answers, all to design a unique facility that best fits the client’s resources, ambition, and desires. 


Asbury United Methodist Church, Tulsa
Oklahoma Aquarium, Jenks

“I often get to talk to a lot of the people that used to work for Sparks,” said Sparks. “What they appreciated as much as anything was our culture. You were free to explore, and you were free to take advantage of opportunities that came along to build your career and portfolio. I’ve never tried to put roadblocks on people. I’ve never tried to dictate to them or impose my ideas on something. I gave them a lot of freedom, a lot of rope. I wanted to have a culture where everybody respected each other.”

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Jill Selman

Sparks Reed adopted many of these same strategies for its corporate culture. While its portfolio includes churches, schools, office buildings,  parks, and automotive dealerships, Sparks Reed's sports efforts stand out. The firm has designed more than a dozen high school and college athletic facilities since its incorporation in 2011, with the latest two in different stages of construction and several more in the design phase.

“Gary has taught me that it is more important to listen to people than to talk, and people don't care how much you know until they know how much you care,” said Reed. “This applies to everyone in my life, both professionally and personally.”

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David Reed

"I feel very fortunate to have worked alongside my dad over the years,” said Selman. “As one of his daughters, it is particularly meaningful to have observed him excel in his career and the roles in which he is so gifted. His commitment to serve the client and go above and beyond is remarkable. I always felt confident in a client or contractor meeting with my dad present, knowing he would have a thoughtful, wise response for whatever came along. His care for people and drive to do the right thing has made a lasting difference."

This retirement should give Sparks more time for his family and photography. He also has considered writing another book to follow 2019’s Game Changer: Oklahoma State University’s Gallagher-Iba Arena and Boone Pickens Stadium.


“Where do I go from here? Wherever God wants me to go,” said Sparks. “I don’t really have a definite plan. I’m open to the next journey. I’m excited about all the possibilities and things that might come my way. I don’t’ think I’ve accomplished all the things I’m supposed to yet. I just want to have the freedom to be able to do whatever that next thing is.”

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