Samuel Reid Spencer Jr.’s tenure as the 14th president of Davidson College spanned a tumultuous period of change. Davidson had just opened its doors to blacks in 1968 when Spencer arrived. Four years later, the all-male school went co-ed.
Spencer died Wednesday at the Pines in Davidson. He was 94.
“The single most important thing about Sam was bringing co-education to Davidson,” said Tony Abbott, professor emeritus at the college. “A lot of the faculty members were opposed to co-education. It was a struggle, but Sam turned it around and made Davidson the place it is today.”
“Dr. Spencer was always a step ahead of us, kindly and gently,” said former Charlottean D.G. Martin, now the host of UNC-TV’s “North Carolina Bookwatch” in Chapel Hill. Spencer followed Martin’s father, Grier Martin, as president of the college.
“When we moved to Davidson, my parents fell in love with the Spencers,” Martin said. “All I heard was ‘Sam and Ava. Sam and Ava.’ My father had enormous respect for Sam’s experience and judgment.”
When illness prompted Grier Martin to leave the presidency, Martin says Spencer “made it possible for my father – who was less and less capable of participating – to continue to be part of the college family.”
Spencer left Davidson in 1983 to become president of the Virginia Foundation for Independent Colleges in Richmond. John Kuykendall then took the helm.
Kuykendall vividly remembered Spencer’s “graciousness and openness about everything here.”
“We had talked very frankly about some very difficult circumstances,” Kuykendall said. “Then he said to me, ‘As you go into the presidency, I will answer any question you ask, and I won’t answer any question you don’t ask.’
“That was such a wise statement and meant such absolute openness,” Kuykendall said. “That was liberating all around.”
Out of Rock Hill
Born June 6, 1919, in Rock Hill, the son of Samuel Reid Spencer and Mary Thomson Spencer, Spencer grew up in Columbia At Davidson College, he was president of the student body, served as managing editor of the student newspaper, and graduated Phi Beta Kappa and summa cum laude in 1940 with a B.A. degree in English.
He served five years in the U.S. Army and was released from active duty as a major.
After a summer’s study at UCLA, he entered graduate school at Harvard University and earned a Ph.D. in American social history. During that time, he married Ava Clayton Clark of Abingdon, Va.
In 1951, he returned to Davidson as assistant to President John Cunningham. Three years later, Spencer was named dean of students. By 1955, he was full professor of history. That year, Little, Brown published Spencer’s book, “Booker T. Washington and the Negro’s Place in American Life.”
Says former Davidson student Bill Jackson, who worked in the administration of President John F. Kennedy: “Under Dr. Spencer, I had one of the most influential, substantive courses of my undergraduate and graduate academic life – American diplomatic history.”
Spencer left Davidson in 1957 to become president of Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Va.
“He did a magnificent job at Mary Baldwin,” Kuykendall said. “When Grier Martin left the presidency, it was a no-brainer to ask Sam to come back and be president.”
At Davidson’s helm
During his tenure, Davidson’s endowment grew from $13.8 million to $30 million, and enrollment increased from 1,000 to 1,350. He spearheaded the construction of the E.H. Little Library, which opened in 1974 and encouraged the expansion of study-abroad programs. Disturbed by the “growing exclusivism” of campus fraternities, he supported a “self-selection” system in which students could choose their affiliations.
He also championed civil rights, pushing for increased recruitment of minority students and faculty at Davidson. For these efforts, he was recognized with the Whitney M. Young Jr. Award from the Urban League of Central Carolinas.
While at Davidson, Spencer served as chairman of the Association of American Colleges and was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to the U.S. Board of Foreign Scholarships.
In 1964, Davidson awarded Spencer an honorary doctor of laws degree, and the next year he was a Fulbright lecturer in American social history at the University of Munich in Germany.
‘He paved the way’
“I had a much easier time being president of this college because Sam was president before I was,” Kuykendall said. “He paved the way. He laid the groundwork.”
The Spencers returned to Davidson in 1989. Sam Spencer, in addition to playing rigorous tennis, served on the boards of Davidson College, Mary Baldwin College, Agnes Scott College in Atlanta, Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa, and Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond.
“Dad had an unassailable sense of right and wrong,” son Reid Spencer said. “But in what is an almost impossibly rare combination, he was open to any and all points of view, was relentlessly tolerant of others’ failings, and never, ever spoke ill of another human being.”
Spencer is survived by his wife Ava; and his children, Samuel Reid Spencer III and wife Candice of Davidson, Ellen Henschen and husband Gary of Atlanta, Clayton Spencer of Lewiston, Maine, and Frank Spencer and wife Melanie of Charlotte; as well as nine grandchildren and one great-grandson.