A man who positioned Mary Baldwin as a “college within a community,” inspired the construction of several major campus buildings, and nurtured study abroad programs and exchanges in Spain, France, England, and India. A woman who pursued advanced degrees, delighted in international travel, and gracefully raised an ambitious family. An innovative campus center that will advance and serve as a major resource for community service learning and international opportunities. The Samuel R. Jr. and Ava Spencer Center for Civic and Global Engagement at Mary Baldwin. Long envisioned, soon a reality.
Named in the Spencers’ honor by unanimous vote of the college’s Board of Trustees and publicly announced April 13, 2007, the Center — to be located on a renovated ground floor of the existing Wenger Hall — is scheduled to open in fall of the 2007–08 academic year. Its creation will bring to life Mary Baldwin’s Quality Enhancement Plan, Learning for Civic Engagement in a Global Context, and its location begins to realize the vision detailed in the Campus Master Plan of a central area for student life that will include social activities, dining, student organizations, daily business, and student life staff.
Louise McNamee ’70, Board of Trustees chair, said the association of the college’s latest venture in global civic engagement and the Spencers is a perfect fit. “More than any specific program or accomplishment, their impact here has always been their outlook as educated people who realize that the life of the mind includes stepping outside academia to explore the world.”
Soon after the announcement — a surprise to both Sam and Ava Spencer — the couple smiled at each other while a 3-D virtual tour of the architectural drawings for the Center elicited “oohs” and “aahs” from members of the Board. The group was gathered at the President’s House for dinner for its April on-campus meeting. Later in the evening, Sam Spencer received another surprise. A resolution commemorating his service on the Board since 1993 slipped in a second prestigious honor — Spencer’s naming as president emeritus of the college — and toasting ensued.
“I am delighted for [Ava] to be included in the naming,” Sam Spencer said. “So often, there are wives who do so much to support their husbands in leadership positions, and they are not always publicly recognized.”
Spencer added that he has enjoyed his unique position as a former president on the college’s Board of Trustees. “It let me return to a close relationship with the institution where I got my start,” he said.
Sam Spencer’s tenure at Mary Baldwin University has long been chronicled and revered as one of the college’s heydays of construction and academic growth. Many people are familiar with his leadership in the planning and construction of Woodson and Spencer (named in his honor in 1963) residence halls, Hunt Dining Hall, Grafton Library, and Pearce Science Center, which remain critical parts of the core campus. Also well-known was Spencer’s foresight to position Mary Baldwin as a college respected for its academic life, which soon led to campus chapters of the national honor societies Phi Beta Kappa and Omicron Delta Kappa.
Perhaps less documented but just as critical to the college’s development, Spencer nurtured student engagement on campus and off, set an example by being involved in community organizations, built study abroad programs, and emphasized internationalism on campus. Under his leadership, students helped raise money for the construction of a new library and helped with its landscaping, held “mock” political conventions, and the college hosted a visit by President Dwight Eisenhower. In addition to working with faculty to create study abroad arrangements, he also brought the international community to campus, most notably by setting up a phone-in from alumnae around the world and by encouraging curriculum development in Asian studies.
In many respects, Spencer’s presidency is echoed by that of current Mary Baldwin president Dr. Pamela Fox. There is a visionary plan for new buildings and new uses for current buildings, modestly increased enrollment, and expanded international and civic programming, all contained in the 10-year strategic plan, Composing Our Future.
Designed around a central circular theme, the Center for Global and Civic Engagement is proposed to include meeting spaces and offices off a foyer decorated with flags from around the world and pictures of Mary Baldwin students engaged in service. From a global perspective, the function of the office will include promoting and facilitating study abroad by providing a central location for information, assisting students interested in study abroad including securing financial resources, creating opportunities for thoughtful reflection upon return, and supporting faculty planning study aboard courses. Professional staff at the Center will promote and encourage civic engagement by continuing positive relationships between community agencies and the college, encouraging expansion of service projects, and coordinating speakers and activities to promote civic and global engagement, among other objectives. Staff will also assist in recruitment and on-campus support of international students.
Sam Spencer’s presidency was aptly nicknamed “bulldozers, steam shovels, and academic excellence,” by Mary Baldwin historian and professor emerita Patricia Menk in her book To Live in Time: The Sesquicentennial History of Mary Baldwin University. His continuing inspiration, paired with his wife’s contributions, can surely add “internationalism, civic engagement, and humility” to that legacy.
For a closer look at how the Spencer Center relates to Mary Baldwin’s 10-year strategic plan and Quality Enhancement plan, read the QEP document linked here.
Front image: The circular interior lobby of the Samuel R. Jr. and Ava Spencer Center for Global and Civic Engagement.