A Celebration of Life: Samuel Reid Spencer, Jr. ’40
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.
SAMUEL R. SPENCER, JR.
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.”