Remembrances for Samuel R. Spencer, Jr.

Samuel R. Spencer, Jr., a former president and alumnus of Davidson College whose active association with the institution spanned almost 80 years, died on Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2013. He was 94 years old.

Spencer’s scholarship and courtly manners were supported by a keen sense of diplomacy, a kind sense of humor and an uncanny ability to remember names going back to his earliest Davidson days. As president from 1968 to 1983, those attributes helped him successfully manage some of the most challenging changes in the college’s history.

Services will be held at 2:30 p.m. at the Davidson College Presbyterian Church on Monday, Oct. 21 with a reception to follow in the Lilly Family Gallery in the Chambers Building.  Read the entire obituary.

27 Replies to “Remembrances for Samuel R. Spencer, Jr.”

  1. The loss of Dr. Spencer is a loss to the entire Davidson Family. He has always been such a strong and steadfast supporter of our wonderful school. I will never forget when he came all the way into Charlotte to see me in the hospital after my shoulder surgery during my Freshman year at Davidson.
    Eppa Rixey – class of ’76

  2. Dr. Spencer was considered very approachable during my student years. When I returned for my 20 year reunion, I was playing tennis with my teenage son. Dr. Spencer was playing with a group two courts down, but observed my thrashing. He greeted us as we left the court, and graciously told my son that he would gladly take him on his team.

  3. I first met Dr. Spencer when I visited Davidson as a junior in high school. It was the week after Christmas, and a couple of days later, we ran into each other on the street in uptown Charlotte. He recognized me and called me by name. I knew, from that moment on, that Davidson was the college for me. And in that moment, he reinforced the power of knowing a person’s name. It has served me well in my ministry.

  4. I did not meet Sam Spencer until he was on the cusp of his 90s. And even at that stage in life it was readily apparent that beneath the courtly manners, there beat the heart of a lion. Yes, Sam Spencer was a man of impeccable grace, but also one of profound vision, rectitude, intellect, and – let it never be forgotten – of tremendous courage.

    His body may have betrayed him but his mind never did; in the few cherished meetings we had I recall so vividly how frustrated he would get that his tongue could not keep pace with his brain! As well as how humbly he deflected any praise I had to offer for his farsightedness in establishing WDAV.

    Sam Spencer embodied the very best qualities to which Davidson College aspires. It was an honor to have known him.

    – Benjamin Roe, former GM, WDAV

  5. I was fortunate to be a student at some of the most memorable times not only at Davidson but for the USA and the entire world. In my junior year, 1968-1969,I served on the Coeducation Committee which was one of the five major committees established by Dr. Spencer in 1968. It was comprised of three students, three faculty members and three trustees. It was a unanimous decision to recommend that Davidson become a coeducation college, and our recommendation was approved. At the time of the formation of this committee applications to Davidson were falling substantially. The major male schools, including the Ivies, had all decided to become coeducational. The decision to become coed, I believe, enabled Davidson to become the institution it is today. I hate to think of what would have happened had it remained an all male institution. It is one of the most important, if not the most important of Dr. Spencer’s legacies.

  6. Among the blessings of my family life has been the decades of lively friendships with Ava & Sam Spencer. They began with Dr Sam’s years as Davidson roomie and close comrade of my uncle (mom’s elder brother) Sam Newell. The “boys” spent occasional weekends with Sam N’s family; Sam S became like a son to my Newell grandparents. Dear Granny Newell took the greatest delight in an honorific comment by (I think) Dr Lingle: he referred to them as “I & II Samuel,” a ne ultra expression of admiration and respect in the Davidson of that era. (Whatever Dr Lingle may have had in mind, Granny of course had no doubt as to which Samuel was “I.”) The subsequent decades of my parents Scottie & John (’35) Newton’s fun Montreat contacts with Ava & Dr Sam, including travels abroad and many stimulating events, only deepened all our sense of that distinguished, luminous, and companionable life he led.

  7. Dr. Spencer’s passing today was not only a loss to the entire Davidson Family, but to the world. As one of many, who have benefited from the courage, determination, and vision of this great man, my heart is heavy knowing that a Being of Light, so desperately needed in our community and world today, is no longer here. Thank you Dr. Spencer for being a true man of God and for all you did to support Davidson’s Love of Learning program. Rest in Peace, my brother and friend. Rev. Brenda H. Tapia, Asst. Chaplain and Director, Love of Learning 1986-2005.

  8. To: Mrs. Spencer and Family

    Dr. Spencer was a role model for thousands of Davidsonians. He loved
    people and could communicate with people at every level. He had a sense of
    humor; I loved his story about Dr. Beatty and Montreat. His Christian qualities
    of love, patience, caring, and outreach touched thousands. He never was lax in
    his support for Davidson and all connected with Davidson. Meeting his mother
    at her Wheat Street home in Columbia, I discovered where his love of
    learning and love for people came from (Mrs. Spencer always kept some Davidson
    students who were in graduate school at U. S. C.). When I told him that my
    brother-in-law, Pat Woodward, had observed that his wife was the secret to his
    success, he replied, “Pat is absolutely right.”

  9. Humble, kind, friendly, brilliant, humorous, courageous. Those are the words I think of when I remember Sam Spencer. He had a special way of always making you feel good whenever you met. He will be missed by so many.

  10. A few weeks into my freshman year, my father died of a heart attack on Friday, October 15, 1971. I returned home that afternoon. On Monday morning, Oct. 18, after getting the mail, my mother handed me a letter from the President’s Office of Davidson College. It was a handwritten letter of condolence from Dr. Spencer. After the graduation ceremony on May 25, 1975, Dr. Spencer smiled and said to me, “You have made your father proud.” I have not nor will I ever forget his expression of care, a care that in so many ways epitomizes the character of the College.

  11. In 1987 when I was trying to decide where to attend college, Dr. Spencer wrote me a personal letter, encouraging me to go to Davidson. I wasn’t sure if Davidson was right for me: it was so close to Charlotte (my home); I had three family members that went there, etc. Dr. Spencer told me not to let these thoughts keep me from the joys and the journey of the Davidson experience. I listened. And what a life-changing letter! Thanks, old friend, Larry Jr.

  12. My freshman year was President Spencer’s first year as well. He was admirable for the many reasons that Hansford Epps mentions but I still remember to this day how surprised and amazed I was when President Spencer greeted me by name sometime near the end of my first term even though we had never had a single conversation. His interest in students and his openness are what I remember most. I was very pleased to see him many years later on the occasion of a presidential inauguration at Washington and Lee University in Virginia had a nice conversation with him about those turbulent years when I was at Davidson.

  13. Submitted for Carter Moffett Douglass ’72:

    I am so grateful for the many ways and places my path has intersected with Sam Spencer’s. Being from Staunton, I was certainly aware of the Spencers’ presence at Mary Baldwin and in the community. In 1968, just as he left for Davidson, I moved into the new Spencer dorm for my freshman year. I heard many times of his remarkable ability to walk across campus and greet everyone by name. When I went to Davidson as a junior, the first year of the “experiment in co-education,” he had assigned a star student (Ray Swetenburg) to be the welcoming committee at my residence (Mrs. Goldiere’s house on Lorimer Road). And the president, himself, was waiting at registration to spend time with my parents and me. My father referred many times to that gesture, but I realized during my time there that it was far more than a gesture. His interest, compassion, and encouragement made us all want to strive to be as special as he seemed to think we were! Years later we were living in the Richmond area when he was president of the Council of Independent Colleges in Virginia. My husband, Brent, got to know and admire him and sought his advice on several occasions. His retirement in Davidson and my determination to return whenever there’s the slightest excuse (class reunions, coeducation celebrations, alumni summer college, presidential inaugurations, basketball games, visiting Connie & Eddie Beach) have provided many opportunities to reconnect, if only for a few moments. Our cottage in Maine is not far from Bates College, where his daughter, Clayton, was inaugurated as president a year ago — so perhaps these meaningful Spencer connections have not come to an end. What blessings and privileges they have been!

  14. I graduated from Davidson in 1961, before Dr. Spencer took over as President of the College, and I had not met him then. A few years later I was invited back to the college to speak at some event, and in the course of my visit I met him— right in the middle of the college’s discussion about whether to become co-educational. It’s hard to grasp now how controversial that subject was then, but it was, and I questioned him closely about his reasons for putting the issue forward. Dr. Spencer explained, eloquently and convincingly, that the world of higher education was moving decisively toward coeducation and that Davidson, if it hoped to be in the front rank of American colleges, could not isolate itself. He explained, further, that some of the best scholarship candidates were choosing other schools than Davidson— and reporting, when queried, that their decision involved a preference for coeducation. Dr. Spencer’s quiet explanation was so convincing, and so squarely predicated on educational quality, that I came away wondering how anyone could disagree. And I came away deeply, deeply impressed by his thoughtfulness and courage as a leader. This was a man of vision; an institution-builder who, as much as anyone, moved Davidson toward its present national eminence. We all owe him a profound debt of gratitude.

  15. I came to Davidson in 1965 as Assistant Professor of Mathematics. Because I had a smattering of experience with computers, I quickly inherited Davidson’s computer operation from Prof. Locke White. The computer at that time had been obtained in the early 1960’s through a National Science Foundation grant for educational purposes. It still was adequate for that purpose, but totally inadequate for any administrative applications. Even so, I did a few things for student affairs and for the admissions office to show what could be done with computers.
    After demonstrating some useful programs, I went to Dr Spencer with a request for a new computer. He listened for a while, then appointed Bob Stephenson (who had sold computers before coming to Administrative Services) and me to buy a computer. In time, we did buy a computer which served Davidson well for a few years.
    At one point in the search, one well-known computer company sent representatives to tell Dr Spencer that we didn’t know what we were doing. Dr Spencer backed us fully. (We did not buy their computer – it already was obsolete and was totally wrong for Davidson’s needs as we saw them.)
    We also told Dr Spencer that one computer was not an end game – at the time, most businesses were replacing computers after three years, most colleges and universities after five years. Also, if we were to take full advantage of the new computer, we should have a professional computer staff. Again, he listened, and Davidson has enjoyed the benefit of good computers and good professionals ever since.
    And I got to go back to what I enjoyed most – teaching Mathematics.

    Jerry A Roberts
    Professor Emeritus of Mathematics
    Davidson College

  16. He was a true gentleman and scholar. I could never have attended Davidson without his efforts; he brought it into the modern era. He also made such an amazing effort to know and remember students. I spoke to him at a Davidson event within the last 5 years, and he not only remembered me (Class of ’79), but sent regards to my sister who had attended Mary Baldwin when he was president there. A loss for his family, Davidson and many friends, but his was truly a life well lived, and we can all be grateful that it was a long one.

  17. In the fall of 1994, I was a freshman at Davidson. I took a French course with Dr. Charles Dockery and, sitting next to me, was an older gentleman that Dr. Dockery explained was a local resident who was auditing the course. I remembered feeling such respect for this man who clearly loved learning and immersed himself in the course. It was not until a year later when I read a Davidsonian article about Samuel Spencer that I learned my classmate had once been President of the College. Dr. Spencer’s humility and wisdom left indelible marks in my memory and I will never forget the example he set for me that education is something we should never stop seeking.

  18. During the 1964-65 school year, I was a junior in high school in Staunton, Virginia, I was wrestling with the decision of which college to attend. My Sunday School teacher that year was Dr. Sam Spencer, who at the time was President of Mary Baldwin College. He and I had several discussions about different colleges. He exposed me to Davidson College, but never pushed me in that direction. Ultimately, I applied for early decision in the fall of 1964, and was accepted. He smiled broadly when I reported the good news. In June of 1969 my former Sunday School teacher handed me a Davidson College diploma, with an even broader smile. It was a moment I have always treasured.

  19. I was the General Manager of WDAV from 1999 to 2008, and Dr. Spencer was the instigator of one of the most memorable moments in my public radio career. One day he called me and asked if I, and WDAV’s Development Director, would like to join him and Ava for lunch. Of course we would; who would turn down an invitation from Dr. Spencer? At lunch, Dr. Spencer was full of small talk, but it was clear that he had something more important to say; he was just waiting for the dramatic tension to build. Finally he launched into a discussion of his old college friend, Samuel W. Newell (the two were known as First and Second Samuel during their Davidson days) and Sam Newell’s widow, Martha, who was looking for a way to honor her late husband at Davidson. At this point, a light began to dawn: several weeks earlier, Dr. Spencer had asked me to prepare a list of naming opportunities for the new building on Main Street that would provide a state-of-the-art home for WDAV. “But don’t think to much about it,” he had advised, “It’s really a long shot.”

    Sure enough, when he judged we could stand the suspense no more, he told us that Martha Newell had pledged $750,000 to name the new WDAV building after her late husband, acknowledging his — and her — love of great music, and their deep affection for the entire Davidson community which he served as pastor of Davidson College Presbyterian Church in the 1950s and early ’60. In one fell swoop, our funding for the project was assured and our operating nest egg, accumulated over many years, was preserved.

    I later learned that when Martha Newell requested information about naming opportunities at Davidson, Dr. Spencer provided her with an exhaustive campus-wide list. What he did for WDAV was to make sure that we weren’t excluded, but with his scrupulous integrity, I feel certain he did nothing to influence Mrs. Newell’s choice. At the same time, I can’t help but feel that he took special delight in being the person to break the news to us. Having been very much present at the creation of WDAV, here he was again, a key player at a critical moment in the station’s development.

    Like so many others, I will always think of Dr. Spencer — Sam Spencer — with love and affection. The story I have told is only one of the many ways he showed his support for WDAV, and for me, over the years. My life is much, much richer for having known him.

  20. I was so sorry to learn of the passing of Dr. Samuel Spencer. He was President of Davidson College while I was a student there during 1971 until 1975. I enjoyed so much conversations with him during the morning coffee breaks in the Chalmers Building. My parents also enjoyed conversations with him during campus receptions. I was in the JYA Montpellier program in France 1973-1974, and we Davidson students so much appreciated Dr. Spencer’s visit to us at Dr. Jacobus’s home in Montpellier that year. Dr. Spencer was a true friend of European studies, and he spend much time in the study of French and German. As a graduate of the Honors College in French and German, I deeply appreciated his interest in my two fields. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to visit with him and Mrs. Spencer during the Christmas holidays when I visited them in their apartment at the Pines on Sunday, December 16th, 2013. Dr. Spencer made an extraordinary contribution to Davidson College in the field of European Studies.

  21. In the Spring of 1978 I was a senior Humanities 400 student working under Dr. Sam Maloney. My tasks included meeting with the sophomore students to strategize the day each would lead the seminar on an assigned topic. One of the students, named Jay, drew the assignment of presenting Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and a discussion about civil rights. We learned just a day or two before the seminar that Shoutin’ Sam would miss that seminar for another obligation. I suggested to Jay that we go to the President’s office and invite Dr. Spencer to attend in his place. “This is one of his areas of expertise. What will it harm to invite him? If he comes, we win, and if he declines, well Jay, you get credit for inviting him. You win. Can’t hurt.” Jay was hesitant, but I convinced him. I had been to Sam’s office many times (usually for non-disciplinary reasons) and we dropped in. After a short wait we were ushered into his office. He received us warmly and Jay made the pitch to have him join our seminar. He graciously said that there would be nothing he would love to do more, but , glancing at his schedule, he said how sorry he was that it just wouldn’t be possible.
    We went out somewhat dejected but finalized plans for Jay’s leading the seminar on his own. The next day Jay and I bounded into the seminar room early only to find Sam Spencer seated at the far end of the long seminar table. Both Jay and I drew a breath and looked at each other in amazement. The next hour was a wonderful dialogue between Sam and the students, and I remember his ending it with his words of encouragement for those students, of how encouraged he himself was at their responses and insights. I could report to Dr. Maloney that Jay had knocked it out of the park with his leadership and that we had had a wonderful seminar with Sam Spencer in his absence.
    I don’t know what schedule-shifting Dr. Spencer had had to do – what appointment put off, what meeting rescheduled – but I like to think that he listened to his own words to us in the office the day before, “…There would be nothing I would love to do more…” Sam the college president gave way to Sam the teacher and educator, on a subject that was one of his enduring passions, and we were blessed the next day to have him with us. This is one of my special Davidson memories, and one of the reasons I, like so very many of us, have loved this man who was our leader , our guide, and our example.

  22. Dr. Spencer was a kind, thoughtful, and gracious person, full of joy. His warm smile and encouraging words were blessings to me, especially during my first year at Davidson, 1972-1973, the first year of co-education. Dr. Spencer enjoyed playing tennis and could be seen regularly on the courts; and he spoke, by name, to those who passed by. From seeing me on the courts, he knew I enjoyed tennis also. One summer day in 1973 Dr. and Mrs. Spencer invited me to luncheon to meet incoming student Dea Booth, the daughter of their long-time friends, and a tennis player. Dr. Spencer suggested that Dea and I start a women’s tennis team. He believed we could do it, God bless him! Dea and I composed a letter to coaches at other colleges, announcing the team’s formation and asking for competition, and we typed and mailed the letters. (We did not inform the rival coaches that we were just students!) Dr. Spencer must have prepared the men’s tennis coach, Coach Jeff Frank, as well as the powers that be in the Athletic Department for our “arrival,” because we were immediately accepted as a part of the athletic program, given a modest budget (but big enough for the seven of us), and allowed the use of the Athletic Department’s large red station wagons. Thus was born the women’s tennis team at Davidson College. In the spring of 1974 we played 13 matches, had a winning record, and most importantly, formed life-long friendships. Dr. Spencer did not advise, interfere, or oversee us; he gave us – very young people – encouragement, responsibility, and official authority (under the jurisdiction of Coach Frank).
    Thank you, Dr. Spencer, for believing in us.

  23. I read with sorrow of the passing of Sam Spencer. I first met Dr. Spencer in 1980 when he hired me to lead a project that would modernize academic and administrative computing at Davidson College. He was then, as he must have been in all his life, a man who looked forward, and in this instance understood in an intuitive way, the great importance of digital technology to the preservation of excellence at Davidson.

    His commitment to modernizing this technology on the campus was tempered by his affection for what was old and lovely at the College. One day, in mid-summer of 1981, as I explained to him plans for furrowing trenches across the campus and laying copper cables that would link every building into a digital network, he stopped me mid-sentence and pointing to his office window asked: “Do you see that wonderful old oak there?” “I do,” said I. “Good,” he responded, “I want you to assure me that all this digging and cabling will do no harm to the roots of that tree or to any other green growth that graces this campus.”

    “I promise we will do no harm to anything that grows from the ground on our campus.” “Good,” he said, “Now let’s get to work.”

    I only knew him for three years, but he was a treasure indeed.

    Bob DeSieno

  24. Mr. Hollingsworth wrote the following column about Dr. Spencer for the RoanokeStar.Com at

    Of late, I have been thinking about teachers and what a life-changing role they play. When my alumni journal arrived this past week there was an article about Dr. Sam Spencer, a former president of Davidson College, who died in October. It brought to mind a story about him when I was a freshman and he was Dean of Students.

    In those days, if one’s father was a graduate of Davidson and a Presbyterian minister, admission was certain. What happened after matriculation was quite another matter. The student in question, and I have no reason to doubt the truth of his tale, had his life turned around by Dr. Spencer.

    He, like most of us, had little idea what he was going to do with his life, but nothing had shown much promise. He was not dumb, but he was incredibly lazy. High school had been endured but with little to qualify him for a college like Davidson except his family connections.

    As a freshman, he found himself in Dr. Spencer’s World History class, surrounded by young men who obviously were better prepared for the academic rigors that lay ahead; he was convinced he was out of his depth. He lived with a sense of dread as the first test was scheduled, and when his paper was returned his worst fears were realized. There was no grade, only a note instructing him to see the Dean in his office the next morning.

    His recounting of the meeting is memorable. Dr. Spencer, himself a Davidson graduate with graduate degrees from Harvard, was a young professor, but with a command presence that could not be denied. Happily, for the students, this was coupled with a sincere and compassionate concern for his charges.

    He greeted the student warmly and then without any hint of condemnation told him that he had not given him a grade because it was one of the worst papers he had ever received. So bad was the performance that he wondered if life at Davidson was beyond his skill, so he had looked up the test scores from orientation.

    He sat down beside the student and told him that he was pleased to see that he ranked in the 98th percentile of all college freshmen from across the country. He told him it was obvious that he could succeed but he would have to learn how to study. If improvement occurred, then Dr. Spencer said he would substitute the final exam grade for this miserable performance. In dismissal, he told the chastened student that he had faith he would be successful.

    As the semester passed, the student did do better and when the final exam papers were returned, he saw there was again, no grade, only the note to see the Dean the following morning. When the meeting took place, Dr. Spencer put his hand on the nervous shoulder and said, “I knew you could do it. You will get a B+ for the semester.”

    At our 50th reunion the story made the rounds and Dr. Spencer, then in his nineties, dismissed the student’s gratitude with, “Oh, you would have made it but you just needed a little support at the beginning.”

    None of us, who listened, believed that. Had the Dean not taken the time to look beyond the obvious and offer encouragement the student said he doubted that he would have ever had the belief that he could have succeeded. On that brief encounter he turned a corner that led to a productive life.

    Dr. Spencer was 95 when he died, and there is no measuring how his influence shaped so many lives. Under his guidance Davidson produced college presidents, governors, CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, and a countless host of leaders in their respective professions.

    The opportunity to shape the future is nowhere in more evidence than in the influence of a great teacher, whether it be in the early years, or in the highest level graduate education.

    In this season of giving, each of us should remember with gratitude the gift of education that we received and be sure that it is passed on to the following generations.

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