When the creation of the Samuel R. Jr. and Ava Spencer Center for Civic and Global Engagement was announced in spring 2007, President Emeritus of Mary Baldwin College Sam Spencer did not hesitate to give credit to his longtime wife, Ava.
“I am delighted for her to be included in the naming,” he said. “So often, there are wives who do so much to support their husbands in leadership positions, and they are not always publicly recognized.”
Ava Spencer was again at her husband’s side when he passed away October 16, 2013, in Davidson, North Carolina, at age 94.
Sam Spencer served Mary Baldwin College with creativity and vigor for more than 50 years, beginning in 1957 with his tenure as Mary Baldwin’s fifth president. He was selected for the position at age 38 and guided the college into a legendary era of physical growth and intellectual development that would position MBC to house chapters of two prestigious national honor societies — Phi Beta Kappa (PBK) and Omicron Delta Kappa (ODK) — soon after his presidency.
Spencer’s ambitious 10-year campus master plan included the construction of Hunt Dining Hall, Grafton Library, Woodson Residence Hall, Spencer Residence Hall, and Pearce Science Center, and later led his tenure as president to be affectionately referred to as an era of “bulldozers, steam shovels, and academic excellence.”
Fifty years after the start of his MBC presidency, the opening of the Spencer Center at the heart of the expanded campus that he helped create served as a testament to Spencer’s global and service-oriented outlook. During his tenure, he built international opportunities for students through study abroad programs in Madrid, Paris, and Oxford; the French and Spanish houses on campus; and the “phone-in” format of the Founder’s Day address in 1967, which connected alumni from around the world with current students in a real-time conversation. Spencer’s commitment to fostering civic responsibility and campus involvement came across in his public comments about MBC being a “college within a community” and the fact that nearly every student contributed to the construction of Grafton Library.
William Watkins Kelly, who succeeded Spencer as president of Mary Baldwin, remembered the grace with which he handed over his leadership.
“Instead of becoming overawed by all the Spencer references on campus, Sam made certain that my family and I were welcomed to MBC and Staunton. He even had recommended to the Board [of Trustees] that the President’s home be moved out into the community,” Kelly said. “Not only through our mutual ties to Mary Baldwin, but through state and foundation circles, we remained the best of friends.”
Spencer’s ambitious work ethic was matched by his thoughtful personality and his rapport with students.
Blair Wehrmann ’64 was one of many alumni who shared anecdotes — via Facebook and email — about the kindness and generosity of the Spencers.
“I remember, happily, my four years with him and his family,” she wrote. “One memory stands out: Several of us wanted to go ice skating at The Homestead after a fresh snowfall, but we didn’t have a car. Dr. S asked his wife about her plans for the rest of the day and she shrugged; thus, a fun day on the ice for a few MBC girls!”
Vera Carl Thomas James ’62 echoed the influence of Spencer’s personal touch: “Instead of remaining in his office, he was involved in the daily routine of campus activities. He knew each student by name, and you had the impression that he cared about you as a person.”
Spencer earned his undergraduate degree from Davidson College in 1940 — where he was tapped for membership in PBK and ODK — and served in the U.S. Army from 1940 to1945, retiring with the rank of major. He later earned his MA and PhD from Harvard University graduate school, where he met wife-to-be Ava Clark. He returned to Davidson in 1951 as assistant to President John Rood Cunningham and was soon named dean of students and associate professor of history, advancing to full professor in 1955. After his tenure at MBC, Spencer became the first former president of the Davidson student body to serve as president of the college, holding the top leadership position from 1968 until 1983.
Spencer went on to champion Mary Baldwin and other private colleges as president of the Virginia Foundation for Independent Colleges. He also provided higher education leadership on the Board of Foreign Scholarships (appointed by President Jimmy Carter to oversee the United States Fulbright program), the North Carolina Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, the Southern Association of Colleges for Women, the Council of Presidents, and more.
His most recent involvement with MBC came as a member of the college’s Board of Trustees from 1996 to 2007, where he served energetically on the board’s executive committee, trusteeship committee, and as co-chair of the academic affairs committee. His contributions to the growth and development of the college were recognized with a Doctor of Humane Letters and status as an honorary alumnus of Mary Baldwin.
“While I chaired the Board of Trustees, Sam was my rock, my sounding board and my mentor,” said Claire “Yum” Lewis Arnold ’69, who led the board from 1999 to 2004. “I could call him at any time on any subject, knowing that he would give me wise counsel and that he would hold in confidence any issue I took to him. Among many things, he guided us through our search for a new president. What I will ever be grateful for … is his warmth and knowing that he called me his friend.”
In addition to his wife of 65 years, Spencer is survived by sons S. “Reid” Spencer III and Frank C. Spencer and daughters Ellen Spencer Henschen and Ava “Clayton” Spencer, as well as nine grandchildren and one great-grandson. Clayton Spencer carries on in her father’s footsteps of educational leadership as the newly named president of Bates College in Lewiston, Maine.
“He was, indeed, an outstanding and compassionate leader and an exemplary human being,” summarized alumna Judy Thompson Hatcher ’63.
Read more about the life of Samuel R. Spencer Jr.