Amherst Magazine

Robert W. Spencer ’55

Deceased January 1, 2010

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In Memory

Bob died Jan. 1 at his home in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, as a result of complications from open-heart surgery a year ago. Longtime residents of Grosse Pointe, Mich., Bob and Judie had been living in Mexico since 1997.

As former president of the Detroit Economic Growth Corp., which he helped found, Bob was regarded as a catalyst and visionary thinker in his efforts to bolster the economic progress of Detroit. He served as president of the nonprofit agency from its creation in 1978 until his retirement in 1994.

As reported by the Detroit Free Press, “Bob was the right guy in the right place at the right time for Detroit. He was always the go-to guy who negotiated and set the tone for getting all sides working together toward a common goal.”

Prior to being DEGC president, he was executive vice president of New Detroit Inc., established in the wake of the 1967 Detroit riot to promote better relations between the races.

We all share Bud Sorenson’s thoughts as expressed recently: “Bob was one of my roommates freshman year. I have nothing but fond memories of him. Tall and friendly, he has a ready smile, a good mind and a wonderfully wry sense of humor. I liked him ever so much, …”

Abe and Mary Jo Moses hosted Bob, Judie, Joan and me in their home in Florence, Mass., during our 50th Class Reunion celebration. We shared warm, memorable reminiscences with each other and had a thoroughly wonderful time.

Following his graduation from Amherst, Bob earned graduate degrees from HarvardUniversity and the University of Michigan in 1961.

In addition to Judie, Bob is survived by daughters Jane Spencer-Mills ’87 and Emily Spencer Lukacz; a son, Robert; a brother, James H., Jr. ’52; and three grandchildren.

Dick Strand ’55

Comments

a daughter's remembrance

Dad never pushed Amherst, but let me know it was a good school. He told funny stories about friends…gathering dozens of pizza crusts in a huge doggie bag as a joke for a roommate, something about how a friend got the nickname “The Pink Whale” and the correlating advice to never wear a funny tie when meeting a new group of friends! He explained how he learned that 6 straight hours of basketball followed by several beers will equal 20 plus hours of sleep and retained a strong enough memory of Chi Psi to advise me against choosing a particular room on the first floor….”that’s not much of a room, it used to be a janitor’s closet!”

When I asked him about what else he learned, he said that he wasn’t very bright. He told me that his Freshman English professor wrote “How did you get in here?” on the top of his first paper. His answer to this (I hope) rhetorical question was a light hearted chuckle. “How did I get in? Simple, my brother
Jim (James Spencer ’52) was extremely bright…They figured I couldn’t be all that bad.”

One Christmas, when I came home wearing an Am HER st shirt, he told me that he had gotten a letter from Amherst in the 70’s asking his and other alum’s opinions about admitting women. He told me then that even though he couldn’t know that I would attend, he thought it made complete sense to admit women and provide the same opportunities to all that might apply.

After he left Amherst, he was stationed in Germany where his German did not improve but his tennis game did. Being an MP during peace time gave him ample opportunity to observe how people interact and added to his stories. After the army, Dad earned an education degree from Harvard and taught history in Colorado where he made his students write a paper every week. One kid hand wrote “bet you a quarter you won’t read this far” in the middle of his essay. When the kid asked why his paper hadn’t been handed back, Dad asked for the quarter. The kid couldn’t believe it.  When I became a teacher almost thirty years later, he admitted to having thrown chalk in his classroom…once….that’s as much as you ever have to. Now we have markers and white boards but I think the message still applies!

He entered a program at University of Michigan for hospital administration and met my mom, Judie. Fresh out of college, she was doing publicity for the U of Michigan Medical Center and according to Dad not only the prettiest “gal” in the place, she was also the smartest guy or gal he would meet. He says he saw her talking with her friend in the cafeteria and sat down hoping to talk to her himself. She says she and her friend rolled their eyes –who’s this guy?? She gave him her number so he would stop asking for it. He claims she gave him the wrong one on purpose. She swears it was an honest mistake or that he just wrote it down wrong.

Evidently, he turned out to be a pretty good guy and they were married in 1962 and had me in 1964, my sister, Mimi, in 1970 and my brother, Whit in 1973. As my brother wrote in a letter to him last December, Dad had an extraordinary ability to be the dad you needed at the age you were. When I expressed an interest in jazz, out came his well-played collection and I was immersed in Coltrane, Miles, Brubeck, Hampton, Goodman. He told me why Goodman was so amazing that he brought his whole orchestra, black and white musicians to Carnegie to perform for a white audience…The 1938 Jazz concert pressed on two LP records took quite a few more spins on my player.  As Jan Farr (’55) remembers, Sing, Sing, Sing was the theme song of many an evening in their freshman dorm.

After the 1967 race riots in Detroit, Dad was asked to work for an organization called New Detroit, Inc. The goal of the organization was to rebuild the city. The Detroit News called Dad a visionary who worked to bring blacks and whites together in the common goal of supporting their city. If you had asked him, he would have said that there was nothing visionary about it. It was simply the right thing to do.

He continued to work for his adopted city as the head of the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation. He brought such unlikely people together as Governor William Millikin of Michigan (named “Mister Clean” for his lack of profanity), Mayor Young (known for a Miles Davis level of the vernacular), James Roche the revered chairman of General Motors Corporation, and various Labor Leaders. He even invited a cleaning lady for the GM offices to one meeting to get her perspective on how to make things better. There aren’t many people who can get the janitorial staff to trust that they will be taken seriously and who can get the big bosses (Dad was prone to titles like “fat cats”) to actually listen.

All this time, Dad was our dad, my mom’s sweetheart and her best friend. Sure, he would work at home on a weekend afternoon but often when mom was napping and we kids were putting off or fretting about some school project. Sure, work would wake him up at night, but he was home at dinner and would take his vacation time in the summer in a way that allowed him to come home for lunch every Friday. When he worked at home, he would spread papers around him in different piles--his dictaphone out to relate work correspondence for his assistant. He was of a generation that did not type for himself. He would make fiendishly strong Turkish coffee and would ask if I wanted any. If so, he would make it black and pour me a cup first, before adding 7 or 8 teaspoons of sugar to the rest of the pot.

His work was meaningful to him, but he never made us runners-up to that passion. He would work on the big problems that surfaced in the city but also could find the time to help us kids think through a history project, complete a set of math problems, and stop us from hyperventilating about all the work we had to do and “it’s already midnight”.

“Not very bright”? …Somehow, I have to differ with his self assessment. I think he was extremely bright….I guess the current term is “people smart.” Perhaps a high emotional quotient.

Dad and Mom loved to travel. As we got older, we would join them. He said he was never good at languages. (He told me that the only thing that saved him in his French final at Amherst was the library in North. There was a copy of the work he had to read translated and sitting on the shelf.) Despite this, I have never known anyone else with the ability to successfully get what he wanted with a handful of nouns, several gestures, a smile and a complete belief that the message would get across. Travelling with dad was fun because he might point out interesting little details on a tile and then go on to explain that Islamic tradition prohibited likenesses of God so the intricacies of the mosaics represented the spiritual experience.

Eating out with dad was also wholly satisfying. He would try something new and proclaim it to be tasty, passable or as with raw quail egg on salmon roe sushi “not too fast on that one”. Dad was a great fan of butter, bacon, snickers bars and anything that my mom would cook. Food that he did enjoy, he enjoyed with enthusiasm. Growing up, I had no idea that his oft quoted phrase “and he looked around for more when he was through” was about anything but food!

Dad experienced without judging and embraced the whole of the human experience. The Dickens quote that resonated for him was that “we are all fellow passengers to the grave”. I hear him telling me I am sounding ridiculous so I will cool it down a bit.

Something that did make me mad was that Dad would never claim credit for his own work. I asked him once in great frustration why he put up with a clearly unfair Detroit Daily news story that had put the blame on him for some messed up deal that he had worked so hard for. I asked him why he had given credit to some other guy for the part that did work. In a particularly Buddhist moment, he told me that it didn’t matter who got the credit or blame but that it would be to the city’s benefit if he took the fall for this and the credit assigned to this other individual. That individual would love the praise and be more likely to seek out more of it and help the city. Whew…I’m not there yet. I’m still stuck on the individual fairness level.

I guess Dad’s gift was to figure out a way to leverage a solution that would make all the participants feel like they had won.

Dad talked about Amherst with fondness and said that the best part of the Amherst education was that it taught you how to think, not what to think. But when asked about feeling nostalgic for any particular time in his life, he said that every year was better than the last. Every year he understood more and enjoyed more. He enjoyed where he was “now” whenever “now” was and looked forward to the next experience. After graduation from high school,having deferred my entrance to Amherst, I stood in the airport ready to start a year in Japan as an exchange student. Dad and Mom were the only parents who weren’t crying. Dad said it would be my “grand adventure”- that I would enjoy myself thoroughly and that they were really proud of me.

I asked him if he had any regrets…Well, he said, were I to do it over, I would have gone by Spence, not Bob in my adult life. Funny man.

When he and my mom visited San Miguel de Allende in 1996, they loved it. Proving that you can be any age and have a grand adventure, they packed up and sold their house in Detroit, sent most of it to San Diego to my sister’s basement in the house that he and Mom had designed—a story for another day— and moved to Mexico. No, Dad’s Spanish never did get very good but his ability to communicate remained as strong as ever.

They became involved in their new community when Dad noticed the beautiful but non-functioning fountains being used as trash bins. As mom said, he missed being able to organize something, and concerned that he might just try to organize her, she encouraged him to act on his impulse. In the thirteen years that they have lived in San Miguel the fountains are now running and there is an anti-graffiti brigade that has removed tens of thousands of graffiti from the streets and houses of the town.

Most people would agree that the fountain—as— trash–bin was a problem. A few might figure out how to clean them up, fewer still would arrange to have garbage bins especially made to replace the fountain misusage and organize a city pick-up of the garbage. I maintain that only Dad would find the ex mayor’s butler who still had the keys to the city water system and convince him it would be a good idea to run the plumbing through the fountains again.

My parents became legal permanent residents of Mexico to underscore their commitment to the community.  They became close to their housekeeper and took a particular interest in her daughter. Dad, with the help of a translator, helped that family set up an education plan for daughter and a plan to employ mother at the local church to maintain her income even after they passed on. Here again is Dad working on a system to help the larger community and still able to work things out on the individual scale. 

Twice a week Dad would meet with friends. (Republicans on Wednesdays and Democrats on Saturdays!) He would get their perspective on many issues, global or local. He kept attending even when he wasn’t well. 

Six years ago, after a lifetime of back pain, several years of chiropractic work and even yoga, he underwent back surgery to fuse two of his vertebrae. His heart afibrillation was actually detected by a doctor 58 years after he originally noticed it at the age of twelve. His anti-stroke combination of red wine at night and grapefruit juice in the morning was replaced by coumadin.

Dad’s failing health played a significant role in the last six years but I never think of him as being unwell. When his doctor told him he couldn’t do any sports that involved lifting his arms over his head because of the blood thinner, the man didn’t gripe about the loss of tennis and golf; he learned croquet…serious croquet. He probably would have taken up pool but most floors in San Miguel are not level!

He used to bemoan the prevalence of plastic. He told my host families in Japan, through translation, that the only thing that he thought could be improved in the landscape of Japan…(how funny, Dad) …was the elimination or reduction of plastic. He would say that “if it’s not wood that rots, metal that rusts or glass that breaks, it’s not real”. After two hip replacements and open heart surgery, we joked with him that there was too much titanium and garden hose inside him for him to still tout the recycle/ compost line with the same zeal.

He and Mom did one last major trip to China in 2008. He was able to visit the Stillwell Museum in Chong King where tribute is paid to his Uncle Henry Whittlesey who was part of the Dixie Mission during WWII, a discrete cooperation between the U.S. and China’s Mao and Cho to rescue U.S. fliers should they need to “ditch” over northern China returning from bombing missions over Japan. He was also able to see the country that had been home to his mom, Ruth Whittlesey from 1899 to 1917. It was not an easy trip to make at the time but important nonetheless.

In this last year, Dad dealt with physical therapy following a stroke at the Stroke Center in San Diego that had both excellent treatment facilities and what he deemed to be the worst food in the entire world. He wasn’t much interested in the exercises proscribed during his free time but did see value in eating sushi and egg rolls and other finger food that we snuck in to help with his recovering hand. He felt that drumming his fingers to Dave Brubeck’s “Time Out” and Miles Davis’s “Kind of Blue” was also worthwhile post stroke therapy— Much more interesting than writing letters and numbers over and over again.

Last summer he made the decision to go off his many meds and to champion quality over quantity of days. He said his goodbyes as he spent time with friends but then found himself with an additional six months of time that he hadn’t expected. A line of his I’ve quoted several times is “What do you say to people when you’ve decided not to die after all?” He and Mom spent an enjoyable and relaxing Veteran’s Day weekend at home with his brother, Jim Spencer(52), sister-in-law Dao and niece Kim Spencer (’86). Christmas was spent with me and my husband Richard Mills (’87) and our daughter Elise in San Miguel. We spent the holidays going out to dinner and visiting their friends and enjoying each other’s company.

During the last two days of our visit, Dad took to bed and within a day of our return to San Francisco, he passed away at home.  In addition to the above named, he has one more daughter, Mimi, a son Whit, and a niece, Linh Spencer (’89), a nephew Jim (’90) and two more grandchildren, Charlie and Lizzy who stayed home with my brother, Whit’s wife Becky…too young to really realize what was going on.

The memorial service at St. Paul’s in San Miguel was uplifting. Jim Senior as well as Junior were in attendance as well as my brother, my sister and her husband, Brian, and Richard, Elise and I. Several of my sister’s friends flew in from San Diego and the church was full of local friends. Funny and heartfelt stories were shared. They centered on Dad’s ability to be fair, do the right thing, and look out for the underdog although Uncle Jim reminded us that for at least part of his life, he was causing considerable trouble. Dad would have laughed. I think we provided an appropriate send off to his next adventure.

I hope, Robert Spencer (Spence, Bob, Dad, Bobbie), your not very bright-ness and exceptional insight into your fellow man will serve you as well in the next stage as it has in this one.  I think Amherst, as well as the rest of us, believe you to have lead a life of consequence.

 

Jane Spencer-Mills class of 1987

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I was so, so sorry to hear about the death of Bob Spencer. Bob was one of my roommates freshmen year.  I have nothing but fond memories of him.  Tall and friendly, he had a ready smile, a good mind, and a wonderfully wry sense of humor.  I liked him ever so much. We pretty much lost contact after our graduation in 1955.  However we re-connected five years ago at our fiftieth reunion.  We were dinner companions at the Saturday night dinner and had a long and interesting conversation.  He charmed Charlotte and me with his description of the delights of living in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico where he had happily retired.  At the end of the conversation, we exchanged e-mail addresses and he extended a very generous invitation to us to come and visit them.  But, alas, we weren't able to arrange a date that would work for the visit.  Sadly, now we never will.  The moral: carpe diem...otherwise it may be too late.

 

Bud Sorenson

 

Bob was one of my roommates freshman year. I can clearly picture him snapping his fingers to Benny Goodman's "Sing Sing Sing" from the famous Carnegie Hall concert on the Webcor phonograph that constantly played in our rooms. He was a wonderful guy. Quiet but kind. Seeing him at the last reunion I sensed he had enjoyed a very happy career and life. Too soon, Spence, too soon.

 

Jan Farr

 

Abe Moses and I enjoyed rooming with Bob during our Junior and Senior years at Amherst.  Abe and his wife Mary Jo thoughtfully hosted Bob and his wife Judith, my wife Joan and me in their home in Florence, Mass., during our 50th class reunion celebration in 2005. (please read Mr. Strand’s remembrance in the Amherst Notes)

 

Dick Strand

 

So sorry to hear about Bob. Bob and I were Chi Psis and played intramural basketball for the lodge.

John Marion

 

Bob Spencer was a great friend and very conservative fellow with a wry sense of humor and a witty reparté.  He had a gentle demeanor but a strong sense of right and wrong.  As manager of our intramural soft ball team he once put me in as a pinch hitter when we were behind and I promptly stuck out on the first three pitches. As I walked back to the bench he patted me on the back and said "well, you didn't waste any of our time ".

 

Hank Head ‘55

 

 

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