Category Archive for: ‘Alumni Beat’

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Dean Rusk International Studies Program: Dracula in Romania, Malaria in Africa, Memories in France


It can be tough to choose from among the many offerings on the Davidson campus calendar, but it’s always worth poking around there. Recently, I gravitated toward a couple of talks sponsored by the college’s Dean Rusk International Studies Program, a result of that office’s partnership with the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting’s Campus Consortium.

Cox in front of “Dracula’s” Bran Castle in Romania

• Dracula tourism in Romania pique your interest? Jonathan Cox ’14 had the topic covered in a recent afternoon presentation in the Dean Rusk International Studies Program’s student lounge. Cox, who grew up in Romania, among other places, detailed a spirited (but not bloody—yet?) debate in that country about the desirability of basing tourism on a literary myth that originated in Yorkshire, England. Cox’s work was funded with an Abernethy Grant, he said, and he has an article under contract with Verge Magazine: Travel With Purpose. Working title: “Dracula Tourism and Its Reluctant Stakeholders: Romania’s Love-Hate Relationship with Its Hometown Vampires.” Cox also has received funding through Dean Rusk for India-based work through the Pulitzer Center that got picked up by The New York Times and beyond.


• A few days after Cox’s presentation, New York-based science journalist Amy Maxmen graced the same space. She writes about medicine, health, neuroscience and evolution for outlets that include NatureThe ScientistScience NewsPsychology TodayCell and the Lancet. She gave students a globe-trotting reporter’s-eye view as a preview for her talk that night, “Tracking Malaria in Africa.” How did a Harvard Ph.D. in evolutionary biology go from marine biology to freelance international journalism? Jealousy, she said, of the reporters who used to come interview her: “They waltzed in and learned all the cool stuff, then waltzed back out again.” Maxmen said she learned on the journalism job by sharpening her “beginner’s mind” skills, learning to ask and re-ask questions, and always paying attention to crucial cultural differences when abroad. No better message to deliver at Davidson, where approximately 80 percent of the student body study, travel, work or perform service in another country.

Pi Delta Phi inductees, April 16, 2014. Click to enlarge.

• On a personal note, moi-même was one of those study abroad students 30 years ago, when the French Junior Year Abroad program was in Montpellier on the Mediterranean coast, where I still regularly visit my “French family.” Talk about lifelong learning! The French study abroad program, now based in Tours, turns 50 next year, pioneer that it was in 1964 for Davidson study abroad programs to follow in other farflung locales.

Moi-meme, 1984ish, home from JYA France with a new sense of hair stylin’.

I was reminded of all this yesterday as I accepted honorary membership in Pi Delta Phi Société d’Honneur Française, alongside a cadre of proud students of French whose esprit de corps and joie de vivre harked me back to my own school days as a French major. At that time, it should be disclosed, I was not inducted into any honor societies, French or otherwise, but I was proud to be among these students yesterday.

La nostalgie? Mais oui! I have already checked my frequent flyer point balances and begun daydreaming of my next trip. Vive la France!

Max Polley: A Passion for Things We Should All Care About


I attended today’s memorial service for Professor Emeritus of Religion Max Eugene Polley.

True to form, Max had made sure the scripture cited was clearly labeled Hebrew or Greek, that the theology was solid, that the resurrection was proclaimed. He did this through his son Vance Polley ’79, a Presbyterian minister.

Vance Polley made clear that his “words of remembrance” were just that, and not a formal homily. Homilies, his dad Max felt strongly, should adhere to strict guidelines of scriptural context and theological purity, as noted above. Vance, in his turn, felt strongly that he needed a little more rhetorical room than that to speak of his dad’s passion for Davidson, for the Presbyterian Church, for the Davidson Community Players, for his family and his friends assembled.

Max Eugene Polley, 1928-2014

We learned that the word “theater” means “a place of seeing.” We learned something of Max’s take on the personal side of his own life’s work from the hymnal: “The God of Abraham Praise,” “Be Thou My Vision,” and “For All the Saints.” We learned that Max tested his Humanities lectures at the family dinner table in the 1960s.

For that last, I am personally grateful: Max had gotten pretty darn good at Humes by the time he convinced me, his callow freshman advisee, not to drop it after fall term 1981. “So broad!” I complained. “Just so!” he countered. He told me to stick with it one more term and see, knowing full well that I would be past any realistic point of no return by then. For that auspicious guidance I have remained grateful, as I am grateful for both the breadth and depth he brought to my Davidson education, still ongoing, and for the many learned and good-natured chuckles we shared since 1981.

And I am especially grateful for the phrasing Vance Polley used in remembering his father’s passions for his community, his college, his church, his beloved theatrical stage: “He wasn’t just passionate about things he cared about. He was passionate about lifting up things we should all care about.”

Thank you, Max, for sharing your “place of seeing.”


LGBT at Work: Alumni Panel on Campus Life and Careers


I participated in a panel discussion on sexuality and career issues held earlier this week at the Multicultural House, sponsored by the Dean of Students Office and the Center for Career Development.

left to right: Andrew Spainhour ’93, Brad Johnson ’94, John Syme ’85, Heather McKee ’87 (photo: Shea Parikh ’16)

First, a nice dinner at Brickhouse Tavern with fellow out gay and lesbian panelists Andrew Spainhour ’93, Brad Johnson ’94, Heather McKee ’87 and organizers Becca Taylor ’06 from Dean of Students and Jamie Johnson from Careers.

Later, some dozen or so students sprawled on the couches of the Multicultural House while we four panelists perched on stools up front. We told what campus gay life (or the lack thereof) was like back in the day, how that felt then, and how it feels now to be talking with students openly questioning issues of sexuality rather than questioning (or not) secrets (closed or open) as in days of yore.

Each panelist talked about how issues around sexuality had played out in our early careers and choices, and our current ones. And we answered sharp questions from sharp students, about tokenization, social relations and legislation; about closets and pronouns and dreams.

“In light of Amendment One, do you feel like people should leave North Carolina?” one student asked, putting a fine point on a broad-ranging conversation about North Carolina politics.

“I think the only way to win is to stay and fight,” Heather serenely concluded after a a full and thoughtful response. (Happy side note: Heather married her classmate, U.S. Navy Capt. Jane Campbell ’87, on a Pearl Harbor Day visit to Hawaii in December!)

Have you ever considered, asked another student, going back into the closet for a career choice?

“I would never dream of going back to a place where I would have to hide,” said Andrew. Brad added a pithy note that the “pronoun game” many gay people used to play, and some still do, when talking about their personal lives at the office is, in a word, tedious. And disagreeable for any number of other reasons, we all agreed.

That said, I added that it’s never a mistake for anybody—gay, straight or in between—to err on the side of caution when sharing personal details in any professional setting. It’s a fine and shifting line to walk, between the world we  live in and the world we want to live in.

Bonus note: Becca offers for your consideration this current survey for LGBTQ alumni by the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators. “While it’s not coming from Davidson directly,” she says, “the information gathered on this survey could be very useful to us in the future.”


Alumni Mailbag: England in the 30s, Victory Ships Across the Sea


Dean Rusk’s senior yearbook entry. Click to read full post.

• A Good Year for Archives—The Around the D blog over at the College Archives is having a banner year for donations, College Archivist Jan Blodget reports. Recently, the late Dean Rusk ’31—Davidson Rhodes Scholar, U.S. Secretary of State for JFK and LBJ, and namesake for the college’s Dean Rusk International Studies Program—spoke through donated letters of his youth to a Davidson professor on topics ranging from ethics and Guy Fawkes Day to more sinister German political rumblings of the day. Read “Dear Dr. Vowles.”

The “Great Bear” that brought Benno Straumann to America in 1962.

The Times Are Ever A-Changin’Benno Straumann responded to our previous post, “Then and Now: Remembering Davidson as a Study Abroad Destination,” about the 1962-63 Richardson Scholars 50th reunion held last fall in a converted fisherman’s hut on the Island of Oeland in the Baltic Sea: “[F]ond memories and (for me at least) a challenging academic environment (I came straight from a farm in England where I had been practicing  English and boarded the former Victory Ship USS Costa Rica, converted to an emigrant/charter ship by the Dutch named SS Groote Beerin Southampton)…. scrapped shortly after our sailing to New York. In came the Jet Age…. I simply loved the ship and its passengers, Americans returning from abroad and Europeans going to the US, with nine days of unforgettable sailing. Cheers, Benno.”

Robert Flowers ’10

• Friends in High PlacesRobert Flowers ’10, with whom I road-tripped with a small group to Hilton Head for an ethics conference when he was a student, has been named the first full-time chaplain of Andrew College in Cuthbert, Ga. A recent graduate of Duke Divinity School, Robert served as a ministerial intern in Guatemala and El Salvador, and worked most recently as a Chaplain Intern at the Alliance Medical Ministry in Raleigh, N.C. Congratulations, Robert, on your journey thus far!

Then and Now: Remembering Davidson As a Study Abroad Destination


Neither time nor distance could keep the affinity of Davidson’s Richardson Scholars Class of 1963–64 at bay when the idea of a 50th reunion sprang to their minds. Richardson Scholars were international students who came to campus for one year of study, in the early days of Davidson’s international focus. Today that focus finds a strong home in the Dean Rusk International Studies Program.

Last fall’s Richardson Scholars reunion was a co-production, wrote erstwhile Richardson Scholar Benno Straumann. “Everybody did a little, beginning in Kyoto and Paris and spreading through the web, creative, a bit chaotic, very productive, but without any definite ‘leadership.’”

The momentous event was held at Richardson classmate Jonas Lonnroth’s converted fisherman’s hut on the Island of Oeland in the Baltic Sea.

“All attended except Simon Henson and Karl-Heinz Hauer, who died in a traffic accident in 2006, as well as Joon Yoo from Korea, whom we could not locate,” Straumann wrote.

l-r: Gunnar, Alan, Koichi, Serge, Romir, Benoit, Jonas, Paul (sitting), Benno. Click to enlarge.

• Gunnar Skagestad (Norway), after military training with Russian studies, entered the diplomatic service, currently as ambassador of the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

• Alan Arthurs (England) studied chemistry, worked for Imperial Chemical Industries, then worked on fair employment practices.

• Koichi Komatsu (Japan) studied chemistry, taught and did research at Kyoto University.

• Serge Ricard (France) studied history, specialized in the post Civil War period and published widely, particularly on Theodore Roosevelt

• Romir Chatterjee (India, now U.S.) studied economics, had an energy consultancy firm, and then returned to teaching in academia.

• Benoit Nzengu (Congo, now France), the first black student at Davidson, studied medicine, became a surgeon in Reims, France, and now regularly substitutes in surgeries in central France.

• Jonas Lonnroth (Sweden) trained and worked as a medical doctor, worked in Stockholm, then turned real estate developer in Stockholm, now lives in Belgium (near Waterloo!), and has a splendid holiday location on the Island of Oeland in the Baltic Sea, to which he invited us all as a gracious host.

• Paul van den Berg (Netherlands) trained as an architect, became a theater set designer and also taught the subject.

• Benno Straumann (Switzerland) studied English and history, taught English, history and political science, and did political work for the Swiss Social Democratic Party.

• Eric Heinz (Argentina, now U.S.) Studied mathematics in the U.S., stayed and taught maths, and did not make it into the reunion picture due to his participation in the Washington triathlon as a 70-plus contender.

Congratulations to these pioneering Richardson Scholars and all internationals who have since enriched the campus life of Davidson—notably today’s Alvarez Scholars—on the eve of celebrating the 50th anniversary of Davidson’s own study abroad program in the coming year!

It’s a Great Day to Be a Wildcat in Deodorant Advertising Land—or Not?


“Get me rewrite!”

Updated 2/19:

Check out this bonus content of behind-the-scenes footage of Steph working with John Legend.

Also, a note: we’ve reported the funny typo through the iSpot web site that posted it to the Degree account page there. No response yet. Maybe it’s a bot that doesn’t care. Now that’s depressing…. Wonder what James Barrat ’83 thinks?

Original post:

Wildcats Go Pit to Pit in Advertising Manproducts—This just in: Former Wildcat hoopster and current Golden State Warrrior Steph Curry bares it, kinda, in this TV ad for Degree deodorant, a direct competitor to the Old Spice brand whose  “Believe in Your Smellf” campaign is the brainchild of Britton Taylor ’98. So far, Britton’s one up on the proofreaders at Degree, whose video page at the time of this posting contained the following “d*#n-you-autocorrect” line:

Stephen Curry is always pushing himself to go faster and harder, just like Degree is driven to make the best antidepressant around.

John W. Kuykendall ’59 on the Honor Code: “An Experiment in Trust Continues”


President Emeritus John W. Kuykendall ’59 often glances down at the red spirit bracelet that he, like many Davidsonians, wears on his wrist in support of The Davidson Trust.

“‘Davidson trusted me.’ That’s not a bad way to start and end my day!” Kuykendall told a nearly standing-room-only 900 Room at Common Hour on Thursday. The Davidson Trust is the college’s commitment to meet 100 percent of demonstrated financial need of accepted students through a combination of grants and campus employment, without relying on loans, in support of the college’s longstanding commitment to need-blind admission.

Kuykendall stood before us to talk about other aspects of trust as well, he said, commending the broad, essential definition of the word that includes honor and civility and personal commitment. Specifically, he was there to talk about Davidson’s Honor Code, in an Honor Council Speaker Series talk that was part of the “Ten Days of Trust” events leading up to the annual, student-led Dinner at Davidson fundraiser tonight. His talk, “An Experiment in Trust Continues,” was an update of a 2009 iteration, “An Experiment in Trust.”

“If you quote from your own work without attribution, is it plagiarism?” he wondered aloud, to knowing, appreciative laughter.

Davidson’s Honor Code is not unique in letter, but is certainly so in spirit and in particularity, said Kuykendall, who was president of the student body when the Honor Council came into being. He recalled some of the conversations of that time, when the student body leaders who applied and also protected the Honor Code saw a need to separate the legislative and judicial functions of their work. There was also no insignificant discussion then of the proper roles of forgiveness and grace and redemption and reconciliation, he said, all aspects of the Reformed Tradition on which Davidson itself was founded. From those discussions, the Honor Council in more or less its current form was born.

Kuykendall is an orator of the foremost ranks, whose expressive cadences translate well into his own written word but perhaps less so to others’. So I encourage you to make time, take time or otherwise shake out some time to stop, look and listen (above) to his most recent thoughts on this quintessentially Davidson topic.

“We may be swimming against the tide,” he said, the sad note in his voice undergirded by quiet defiance as he related some latest statistics on cheating in high school. “At Davidson, your word is your bond, and your work must be your own. Welcome to ‘the bubble,’ so they say. Weal or woe—and let’s hope it’s weal—you are in the middle of it…. But I don’t like ‘the Davidson bubble.’ Davidson is not a bubble. It is a crucible.”

Kuykendall further encouraged listeners to read President Carol Quillen’s recent article on The Huffington Post, “Trust’s Legacy: Davidson’s Honor Code.”

I will add to that a link to alma mater’s bedrock Statement of Purpose. I still have the paper copy that came with my letter of employment in 2001. It is good to read it regularly, just as it’s good to read and hear the current thoughts of both Kuykendall and Quillen on trust, on honor, on what Davidson means in the world today.

I say thank you to them both, in the same spirit that every person in the 900 Room yesterday stood when Kuykendall was finished. It was an ovation for a speech well-delivered, yes, but it was more than that. It was a matter of honor, alive, here, now, unique in spirit and in particularity.



Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era


Click to visit Barrat’s website.


Updated: 1/29/14:

Per James Barrat ’83 at lunchtime in the Baltimore airport (no delays expected en route to Davidson): fresh talking points for tomorrow’s campus presentations and Charlotte Talks, WFAE at 9 a.m.!

Google’s New A.I. Ethics Board Might Save Humanity From Extinction in the Huffington Post

Updated 1/28/14:

Google has now bought its ninth robotics firm in a year, and that’s just the tip of a titanic iceberg.

Click to enlarge.

This Thursday, Jan. 30, come hear James Barrat ’83, author and filmmaker, talk about his book Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era, as well as his take on the value of his liberal arts education in his (much!) broader documentary filmmaking career. See campus calendar for details or click poster at left. Also, members of the campus community can check Inside Davidson announcements for opportunities to share a roundtable meal with James and students, Thursday lunch or Friday breakfast.

And tune in to “Charlotte Talks” on WFAE Thursday at 9 a.m. to hear Barrat live with Davidson’s own Dr. Raghu Ramanujan and Dr. Mary Lou Maher of UNC Charlotte.

Original post, 10/2/13:

Some days it’s hard work being a humanist—or any other kind of human— in a STEM, STEM, STEM world. Already today, I have balked at Excel, pitched a fit at Verizon, and narrowly avoided a nasty Blair Witch Project reaction to a dizzying series of administrative Prezis marked “ACTION REQUIRED.” So I am trying to be easy with myself for being a bit behind in my reading.

I also admit to no small trepidation in getting to the next book on my list: Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era, by James Barrat ’83.

Wait, what?


Yes, the title is much. But having interviewed Barrat some years back for the Davidson Journal about his rock-solid career as a globe-trotting documentarian, I knew him to be a thoughtful, reasonable sort not prone to needless hyperbole. So I called him up.

He spoke of the high-tech “intelligence explosion” bearing us ceaselessly into the future.

“Computers can do recursive operations at lightning speed,” he said. “About the time we realize we’ve got something that’s the level of humans, it will be past us.”

Oh, dear. He proceeded to tick off a disconcerting list of possibilities and potentialities.

“Whatever is created,” he said, “will know our history of becoming addicted to our technologies. Its first appearance could be an app. Then it could slip whatever restraints it might have and become autonomous.”

I peeked into the book last night. In it, Barrat offers reassurance of his continuing commitment to thoroughness of inquiry: “My profession rewards critical thinking,” he writes in the foreword. “A documentary filmmaker has to be on the lookout for stories too good to be true. You could waste months or years making a documentary about a hoax, or participate in perpetrating one.”

Click to visit website

Recommended reading! From Barrat’s website:

Our Final Invention explores how the pursuit of Artificial Intelligence challenges our existence with machines that won’t love us or hate us, but whose indifference could spell our doom. Until now, intelligence has been constrained by the physical limits of its human hosts. What will happen when the brakes come off the most powerful force in the universe?



Family Weekend: Dean Wendy Raymond on Molecular Biology and Lessons from an Elderly Beagle


Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of Faculty Wendy Raymond, who began her work at Davidson Aug. 1, addressed her inaugural class of seniors as a group for the first time at Fall Convocation.

“At Davidson, excellence comes in the context of lives of leadership and service, of humane instincts, of disciplined and creative minds,” she said, quoting the college’s oft-cited Statement of Purpose.

Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of Faculty Wendy Raymond

Raymond pointed to the “mutually reinforcing” attributes of integrity and transparency as twin foundations that serve Davidson’s readiness to “change and evolve without losing balance.”

She offered the example of her fond familiarity with transfer RNA (tRNA) in molecular biology labs as a framework for understanding change. The function of tRNA is to decode DNA molecules in genetic protein translation. Like the liberal arts and sciences, tRNA molecules have been around a long, long, long time. Both can be seen as an integral part of the changes, evolutions and ongoing iterations of humanity.

So, where does the beagle come in? Well, Raymond’s beloved beagle Lita, a lady of a certain age, is prone to fall down in the midst of all the vivacious spiritedness she brings to each day of being a dog. And what does she do, over and over? She gets back up and keeps going.

Raymond encouraged Davidson students to get used to falling and to getting back up and keeping on, taking risks and learning and bringing those lessons and that experience cheerfully forward. Not bad advice for the rest of us, too. Thanks, Dean Raymond, I needed that!

Read more about Fall Convocation.

Read more about Dean Wendy Raymond.

A Celebration of Life: Samuel Reid Spencer, Jr. ’40


Click for page.

Davidson College Presbyterian Church filled with love and memories of President Emeritus Samuel Reid Spencer, Jr. ’40, on Monday, Oct. 21, as friends and colleagues gathered to celebrate the life of the college’s fourteenth president. Following are remarks made by President Emeritus John Wells Kuykendall ’59, with kind permission.



June 6, 1919-October 16, 2013


Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.

Before the mountains were brought forth,

or ever you had formed the earth and the world,

from everlasting to everlasting you are God.


“From everlasting to everlasting you are God.”

Everlasting to everlasting is a mighty long time.  Our dear loved one, friend, leader, mentor, and hero Sam Spencer lived a mighty long time, too, much to our joy and gratitude.  He made 90 look like the new 60!

The psalmist—later generations thought this psalm must have been written by Moses—wrote in a later verse of the 90th Psalm that “the years of our lives are three score and ten.” (v. 10)  But Moses or whoever, that psalmist obviously hadn’t met Sam Spencer!

Sam lived a long time, but he also had an awareness of the vast dimensions of  “everlasting to everlasting.” He certainly knew that no one lives forever.  And he also knew that wherever life begins, and whenever and however life comes to its end, we are  encompassed by God’s love in that “everlasting to everlasting.” Sam also knew that in the midst of God’s alpha-to-omega continuum—that “everlasting to everlasting”—God’s watch-care makes whatever life we have a suitable “dwelling place.”  Sam Spencer knew those truths.

Moreover, he seemed to have an innate gift for making his presence count for something at every stage along life’s way.  The wonderful summaries of his life in the press and other media have called to appropriate remembrance the special qualities and accomplishments of our beloved friend.  They gave us a passing summary of some of the places he called home over the years:  Rock Hill, Columbia, Davidson (several times!), military service, Cambridge, Staunton, Germany, Richmond.  I’ve surely missed too many for my list to earn a passing grade.

But never mind that.  The point to be made is that in each of those places, from childhood to these latter days back here in the dwelling place he  served and loved (and which surely loved him in return), Sam knew how to do what our Reformed forebears used to refer to as “improving the time.”  Each “dwelling place” provided him with God’s gracious opportunity to make a difference.  And so he did.

Way back there in the beginning, as a small child in Rock Hill, he made a lasting impression upon those around him as a good person of remarkable talents.  I once heard one of his kindergarten contemporaries say some very complimentary things about her former schoolmate, Sammy Spencer.  Sammy?  She called him Sammy!

Now, as one who had been accustomed from our earliest acquaintance when I was a Davidson freshman to calling him Dean Spencer or Dr. Spencer or, after a few years, President Spencer, I was a little taken aback by that familiarity at first; but it also gave me the courage to start calling him “Sam,” as he had frequently insisted from early in our friendship.  (Never got around to calling him Sammy; but that’s probably just as well!)

The main point of the story, though, is to suggest that in his earliest years of inhabiting our “dwelling place,” Sam Spencer had already begun to exhibit the sorts of special gifts and graces which adorned his life throughout.  Then the record of what he did in all the other stations and stages is little short of phenomenal.  The newspaper tributes could never do it full justice; indeed, neither could any words any of the rest of us might concoct.

Sam was the acknowledged—but inordinately modest—master of his vocation.  At Mary Baldwin, at Davidson, surely at other places such as Union Seminary and the several colleges to which he dedicated himself as trustee and mentor, the St. Paul’s Cathedral inscription honoring Sir Christopher Wren is entirely appropriate to Sam’s contributions as well: “If you seek for a monument, look around!” Just here near at hand there is the E.H. Little Library, the Vail Commons, the first stage of the Baker Sports Complex (which he may have thought to be the most urgent part, since it was the Knobloch Indoor Tennis Center!), numerous other physical improvements, here and in his other “dwelling places.”  He did not shy away from the task of being a builder not only of facilities but of self-confidence and reputations.

But Sam Spencer’s service in all those places where he had influence was not really—not even primarily—about such things.  It was about people; and it was about people being accepted and welcomed and appreciated, and being well-served and encouraged, and being given the opportunity to grow, and challenged to foster their abilities and improve their competencies in order to serve others as they had been served.  Every dwelling place for Sam became an occasion for loving and encouraging other people.

He was a leader, and in many respects a cheerleader; he was a visionary, and a practitioner of the possible; he was compassionate and companionable; he looked out for others without any tincture of selfishness or self-interest.  Though he was not a large person physically, the word “giant” is entirely appropriate, especially concerning his attentiveness to matters of moral consequence.  In such instances, the size of his presence seemed far more formidable than either of these namesakes sitting down front… or, I’ll warrant, any of the rest of us in this room, and most folks beyond.

Those wonderful capacities were certainly evidenced in the home, both the one into which he was born, and the one which he and Ava established and have kept so vitally alive for all these years.  The obvious affection Sam had for Ava—and she for him—is for the rest of us a model for marriage; and their children—Reid, Ellen, Clayton, Frank—surely benefitted from his attentiveness to their lives at every turn, to say nothing of his pride in their special accomplishments… and certainly to say nothing of his boundless affection for each and every grandchild (and one great-grandchild), special in her/his own right.

But there’s much more to be said about his capacity for being a source of encouragement and an agent for change in the lives of other people in all his dwelling places.  I heard it said last week that a very thoughtful current Davidson student who happens to be African-American made the statement upon hearing of Sam’s death, “You know, if it weren’t for him, I probably wouldn’t be here!”  And he spoke truth; not only for himself, but for many, many others among us.

And it, of course, almost goes without saying that if you happen to be a woman at Davidson—woman student or alumna, or woman faculty member or administrator—you are obliged to say something similar.

A brief point of personal privilege, if I may: I testify that he was as good a predecessor as one could ever imagine.  When I was a rookie in this place, he said to me, “I’ll answer any question you ask about Davidson; and I won’t answer any question you don’t ask.”  And he was as good as his word; and he also made good on a tacit commitment conveyed by his unwavering attentiveness and demeanor to be supportive and encouraging to me…even when I did something stupid!

But we should never forget the source of that sort of behavior and temperament towards all sorts and conditions of people:  It was Sam’s profound commitment to Christianity and to the Church.  That engendered what his son Frank properly calls an “incarnational faith:”  “His was a faith that demanded action, justice, hospitality and compassion in the immediate, in each moment.” He intended the best; he intended “reconciliation now,” Frank says, “in the human moment of pain, injustice, or exclusion.”

Our “dwelling place” would not be at all what God had in mind, unless it is one which is open and welcoming to all God’s daughters and sons.  That’s the essence of what motivated Sam Spencer; and any other accomplishments—and their name is surely legion— he had in these nine-decades-plus years were of lasting worth to him only to the extent that they served that purpose.

Though he would think it pretentious and maybe embarrassing to have it said, it is self-evident to the rest of us that the text from Micah 6:8 which Lib is about to use as a touchstone for her prayers of thanksgiving is an apt summary for the ways in which Sam occupied his time and energy here within God’s everlasting presence: doing justice, loving kindness (I still love the older word, “mercy”), and walking humbly with God.

Now, please let me conclude by telling a special story that Sam told on himself.

If it seems to anyone to be inappropriate, I have chosen to ask for forgiveness rather than for permission!  This episode took place at Hollins College, which called Sam out of a well-earned retirement to serve as its interim president. (Clayton, he told me that you counseled him that it would be okay to go, so long as he were not “on some quixotic quest for his lost youth.”)  Well, he went to Hollins and did a superb job, as one would expect.

It happened one winter evening, though, as he was heading home from the office just at dusk, that he found that the battery had died in his car. It was before the era of cell phones, and he needed to call Ava to come pick him up.  He was parked quite near one of the residence halls, and seeing one of the students coming in from a late class, he asked her if he could come into the entryway and use the public telephone because his car wouldn’t start.

She welcomed him quite courteously, but as he stood in the hallway using the phone, one of the other residents saw him at a distance and sang out the time-honored cautionary alert, “Man on the hall!”

The woman who had brought him in quickly responded, “Oh, don’t worry; it’s only Dr. Spencer, and his battery’s dead!”

Well, we shouldn’t worry, either, even in this time of our sadness and loss; but for quite another reason:  Sam Spencer’s “battery”—of humanity, of compassion, of honesty and fairness and immense capability, of commitment and of understanding of the nature of our “dwelling place” and the way to discover and achieve its possibilities–that battery is everlasting… in every way!

We give thanks to our Creator, our Redeemer, and our “Dwelling Place” for the life and witness of Samuel Reid Spencer, Junior.

“Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations… from everlasting to everlasting, you are God.”


Read “College Mourns Passing of President Emeritus Samuel Reid Spencer, Jr., a Davidson Leader for 80 Years.”










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