Today, Dale Sparks runs All-Pro Framing and Photography, shooting photos and making custom frames for any business or personal occasion.
His Dale Sparks Collection of sports photos includes shots from some of the most iconic moments throughout WVU history, from Major Harris' miraculous touchdown run vs. Penn State to a shot from Bill Stewart's famous "Leave no doubt" speech during halftime at the 2008 Fiesta Bowl.
But 44 years ago, Sparks was working as a summer photographer for the Raleigh Register in Beckley, West Virginia. Before that, he worked on his junior high school yearbook and newspaper.
“When I was somewhere around 10 or 11 — my father was also self-employed — and every once and a while he’d get these little trinkets that he’d give away to customers when he made a sale," Sparks said. "One of those trinkets, I think it was probably Motorola, they had some promotional thing going on, and they gave him a bunch of little Kodak Instamatic cameras. And if you bought a television he gave you a free camera.
"Of course, the camera probably wasn’t worth $10, $20, but he brought one of them home to me, and I was hooked. It was just a little, tiny camera, and I still have it.”
He'd put down the camera in high school, but when he came to Glenville State College, he rediscovered his passion for photography.
"I met a couple of the photographers who worked for the school paper," Sparks said. "And they taught me how to process film and make prints in the dark room and I was really hooked all over again.”
Graduating in 1980, Sparks went into the newspaper business where he took photos for different papers, including the Dominion Post for 17 years, where he honed his craft through the job.
"I always said the newspaper business is a great training ground for photographers," Sparks said. "Because you get to jump from one thing to the next thing, from sports to a bridal tab to going to a car wreck, going to a shooting to whatever else. It was a great training ground for me to learn all these different things."
Even while entering a wide range of environments, there was one genre of photography that gripped the then-newsman the tightest.
“The heart of soul of my photography is sports photography," Sparks said. "I always enjoyed sports photography and that goes all the way back to junior high when one of our sponsors gave me a press pass, my very first press pass. And she said ‘Take this down to the principal and have him sign the back and you’ll be able to go to all the games and shoot pictures for the newspaper and yearbook.’ I took it down there and I handed it to him and I watched him sign it on the back — ‘Please admit to all home games free.’ And I was like, ‘Oh my gosh.’
"In that moment I knew there was something special about sports photography and getting to go watch all these games for free."
While sports photography might have been the biggest interest of Sparks' career, it was not the only one. In his newspaper career, Sparks shot pictures of all manner of people and places — such as George Bush speaking in Morgantown, and Ronald Reagan attending the 1982 World's Fair in Knoxville, Tennessee.
With Sparks' interest in sports photography came plenty of opportunities to encounter star athletes as well. NFL Hall of Famer and Marion County's own Frank "Gunner" Gatski, former MLB commissioner Pete Rozelle, O.J. Simpson, Joe Namath, Roger Staubach and Pirates legend Bill Mazeroski all were in the sights of Sparks' lens throughout his career.
"That’s the beauty of photography," Sparks said. "It takes you to places that normal people wouldn’t get to go, and get to meet all kinds of people that most people wouldn’t get to meet because of your ability to be there, be close to them as a journalist.”
In all his travels across West Virginia and beyond, one of his most vivid memories came in a moment where his ability — the ability to capture a moment — was of paramount importance. Not just for tomorrow's news, but as an entry in a dark chapter of the United States' history.
“Within hours of [Flight 93] crashing in Shanksville, [Pennsylvania] I was dispatched there with a reporter to cover the events on 9/11," Sparks said. "To me, how do you make that a highlight of your career with the enormity of it, but the depth and the tragedy of it in itself, that’s where I look at it as me being privileged enough to cover that, one of our country’s most horrible moments. It was a privilege to be able to do that. I didn’t look at is fun or enjoyable, but it was my job to cover that as it hit that close to home, in Morgantown.
“It was an honor and a privilege to document what happened that day, the great heroes that were on that flight.”
With such a breadth of experiences, Sparks moved on from the news business later on in 2001, and became a contract photographer for WVU Athletics, a position he still holds today. He has captured a preponderance of big moments while shooting at every big game, BCS bowl, and NCAA Tournament game — including a Final Four appearance — for the Mountaineers.
While his photography keeps him as busy as ever, does Sparks ever want to go and take photos during his free time as well?
“Reminds me of a story that my minister told me as a young man," Sparks said. "His wife was saying ‘You come home from working all day, and I want to read scripture and do all these things together.’ And he goes ‘Well I read my Bible all day long. The last thing I want to do when I come home is read the Bible some more!' It kind of equates to that.”
Though he might not wake up and go to bed with a camera in his hand, Sparks still takes great pride in his photography. For the veteran shutterbug, each photo is the chance to show a person or place in a unique light.
“The whole idea is to interpret what you see," Sparks said. "And you can see things in a different way, and that’s always been my philosophy — show people, through your photography, something in a way that they’ve never seen. Show them in a way they’ve never looked at it. There’s always a fresh eye, a fresh way to look at things. That’s how I’ve always done everything. Find a different way to look at something."
And that is no more true than in sports, an arena where the greatness of a game, or even a player's entire career, can be captured in a snap.
“You’ve got to get the key moments of the game," Sparks said. "Anybody can go out there and shoot action. But get the key moments, the big plays, the big touchdown, the big home run, the big buzzer-beater to win the game — I call it the ‘it-factor.’ You either get it or you don’t. And you’ve got to go out with that mindset that you’re going to get everything that’s important. You’re going to miss. It’s like fishing, you’re not going to go out and catch all the fish, but I’m going to get my limit and then some.”