McCrabb: A 35-year Fairfield Skyline career that inspired the community comes to an end

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Duane Sparks has been a staple of the Skyline Chili community since he started working at the Fairfield location in June of 1985.

It was hard to tell on this day what drew more people into Skyline Chili: Three-ways, cheese coneys or the opportunity to see the smile on the face of Duane Sparks.

One by one last Monday, they kept walking through the front door of the Fairfield Skyline on Hicks Boulevard.

They were longtime Skyline customers, co-workers, neighbors, Fairfield firefighters and the mayor.

They were all there to celebrate Sparks’ retirement after 35 years as dishwasher, bus boy and greeter at the Butler County chili parlor.

Sherry Dillon, community services director for the Butler County Board of Developmental Disabilities, said in her 20 years with the organization she could only think of a few clients who worked as long as Sparks.

“A pretty amazing feat” is how Dillon described his work history at Skyline. “He has a great sense of humor. He doesn’t know a stranger. Everybody who comes in the door knows him.”

That was especially true last week when the Skyline owners, Dennis and Robin Kurlas, hosted an open house for Sparks, whom they hired when he was 18. They presented him with a 35-year pin.

Dennis Kurlas said Sparks was the ideal employee because he never missed a day of work unless it was to play in a softball tournament or vacation with his mother, Jean. Even when he was assigned to work in the back of the restaurant, Kurlas said it was hard to keep Sparks from greeting customers.

He arrived to the table even before the server could bring crackers and drinks.

“Pure innocence” Kurlas said when asked about Sparks. “He lived in the moment and we forget the importance of that sometimes.”

Sparks, 52, started at the Skyline across the street and moved to the Hicks Boulevard location when it opened about 25 years ago.

Wearing a cardboard crown with the words “The Legend Has Retired,” Sparks bounced around the inside of the restaurant, seemingly more excited to greet the next party guest.

He has been adopted by Fairfield firefighters and many of them attended the open house. Jean Sparks called the firefighters her son’s “rock.”

“He loves them,” she said.

Another highlight was riding in a blue convertible Corvette with Fairfield Mayor Steve Miller. He waited for the traffic to clear then “burned rubber” down the street, as Sparks put it.

“It was fun, very exciting,” Sparks said.

Dennis Kurlas was asked what it’s been like having an employee with developmental disabilities working in his restaurant.

“We learned from him more than he learned from us,” he said. “It’s a gift that he gave us. He gave our community a gift.”

Robin Kurlas added: “He is such an integral part of not only the Skyline family but what he has done for the whole community. He has just touched everybody.”

His mother didn’t know he had developmental disabilities until he was 18 months old. He didn’t start talking until he was 5. He attended schools in Fairfield and Ross.

She said Sparks needed to retire due to the coronavirus pandemic. He doesn’t like wearing a mask, and proper social distancing isn’t part of his vocabulary.

His mother felt a little sadness for her son.

“It’s an end of an era for him,” she said. “But I couldn’t have asked for a better place for him to work.”

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Duane Sparks, 52, recently retired after working for Skyline Chili for 35 years. The restaurant owners hosted an open house last week for Sparks. RICK McCRABB/STAFF

Duane Sparks, 52, recently retired after working for Skyline Chili for 35 years. The restaurant owners hosted an open house last week for Sparks. RICK McCRABB/STAFF

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Duane Sparks, 52, recently retired after working for Skyline Chili for 35 years. The restaurant owners hosted an open house last week for Sparks. RICK McCRABB/STAFF

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