A member of the Class of 1940, Sam Spencer’s active association with Davidson spanned almost 80 years. His 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.
“Sam Spencer was, in a single word, a giant. He was a man of visionary leadership at a pivotal time in the life of Davidson College,” said President Carol Quillen. “For me, as for so many in the college family and far beyond, he was a ready exemplar of attributes we need most in the world today. He was a man of grace, of humility, and of quiet and unwavering moral courage.”
During Spencer’s presidency, Davidson witnessed the introduction of co-education, the active recruiting and admission of minority students, the establishment of a self-selection social system for fraternities, a reevaluation of the college’s relationship with the Presbyterian Church, and student unrest over the Vietnam War. Through it all, Spencer led a new emphasis on faculty research, more and deeper foreign study opportunities for students, and an increase in the college’s endowment from $13.8 million to $30 million. Enrollment during his tenure increased from 1,000 to 1,350.
The major building project of Spencer’s administration was construction of the E.H. Little Library, which opened in 1974. He also approved student creation of WDAV as a carrier-current student radio station in 1969, and led its evolution toward a classical music format and professional operation beginning in 1978.
“Sam has been a personal role model for me since 1955, when I was a naïve freshman and he was Davidson’s dean of students,” said President Emeritus John W. Kuykendall ’59 (1984–97). “The fears I felt because of the nature of his job were quickly eclipsed by the warmth of his caring presence among us. Brilliant but approachable, principled but sensitive to others, tough but gentle: Sam Spencer has been Davidson’s ‘man for all seasons.’”
Registrar Emeritus and Professor Emeritus of German and Humanities Hansford Epes ’61 also lauded Spencer’s leadership in the context of rapidly changing times.
“President Spencer recognized that Davidson had a larger role to play than the one with which we had become somewhat comfortable,” said Epes. “He took on almost all constituencies at one time or another in order to do what he believed to be right—a determination that has been to the college’s immeasurable benefit.”
Born in 1919 in Rock Hill, S.C., Spencer spent much of his youth in Columbia, S.C. At Davidson, he was elected president of the student body and graduated as a Phi Beta Kappa summa cum laude history major, as well as salutatorian. He also served as cadet major and executive officer of the ROTC Corps. He was commissioned into the Army infantry in 1940 soon after graduation. ROTC assigned him to teach military science at Davidson to student cadets until 1943. He served in 1944-45 in Europe as an intelligence officer with the Eighth Air Force. At the end of World War II he was released from active duty as a major.
He then entered Harvard University graduate school, where he earned his master’s and doctoral degrees in history. At Harvard, he met Ava Clark, whom he married in Abingdon, Va., in 1948. In 1951, Spencer returned to Davidson to serve as assistant to President John R. Cunningham. After three years, he was named dean of students and associate professor of history, advancing to full professor in 1955.
Spencer left Davidson in 1957 to become president of Mary Baldwin College. He positioned Mary Baldwin as a “college within a community,” inspired the construction of several major campus buildings, and nurtured study abroad programs and exchanges in Spain, France, England, and India. His presidency there was aptly nicknamed “bulldozers, steam shovels, and academic excellence” by a campus historian. In 2007 Mary Baldwin honored his service with dedication of the Samuel R. Jr. and Ava Spencer Center for Civic and Global Engagement, a major resource for community service learning and international opportunities.
Spencer received an honorary doctor of laws degree from Davidson in 1964, and in 1965-66 he was a Fulbright Lecturer at the University of Munich in Germany. From 1966 until 1968, he served on Davidson’s Board of Trustees, and in 1968 he accepted the call to become the college’s 14th president. It soon became evident that he intended to lead Davidson into national prominence, and his unrelenting and single-minded pursuit of excellence was as legendary as his volleys on the tennis court.
The Davidson College ROTC program inducted Spencer in 1989 as one of the first eight members of its Hall of Fame. He served as a member of Davidson’s Board of Visitors and as chair of the Board of Trustees of Union Theological Seminary in Richmond. He and Ava continued to live in Davidson after his retirement as president, and Spencer served as consultant to the college’s development office.
President Jimmy Carter appointed Spencer to the Board of Foreign Scholarships, which oversees the Fulbright Program for the United States, and he served as its chair in 1982. He provided leadership in many higher education associations and served as a member and chair of the Board of Directors for the Association of American Colleges. At the end of his Davidson tenure in 1983, he was elected president of the Virginia Foundation of Independent Colleges, and held that position until 1988. In 1990 he served a year as interim president of Hollins College during a presidential search at that institution.
Sam and Ava Spencer’s legacy of college leadership lives on in their daughter Ava Clayton Spencer, one of their four children, who was inaugurated as the eighth president of Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, Oct. 26, 2012. In her inaugural address, Clayton Spencer gave an emotional acknowledgement to her parents, holding up her cap and explaining that Sam Spencer had worn it both as president of Mary Baldwin College and of Davidson College.