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Samuel R. Spencer Jr., 94; former college president

Sam Spencer

Sam Spencer

Samuel R. Spencer Jr., former president of Davidson and Mary Baldwin colleges and a progressive leader in higher education, died Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2013, at The Pines at Davidson. He was 94.

Spencer’s passion for Davidson College spanned more than 75 years, from his days as an undergraduate through his presidency and beyond. During his 15-year tenure (1968-1983) at the helm of one of the nation’s most respected liberal arts colleges, Spencer championed the introduction of co-education, the active recruiting and admission of minority students and the establishment of a self-selection social system instead of exclusionary fraternities.

Skilled at the art of diplomacy, and ever aided by his robust sense of humor, his unerring sense of right and wrong and his genuine affection for those with whom he worked, Spencer presided over Davidson during the turbulent Vietnam War era and steered the institution through an evolution in its relationship with the Presbyterian Church.

During his presidency, the college’s endowment grew from $13.8 million to $30 million, thanks in part to Spencer’s pioneering work with major charitable foundations. Enrollment increased from 1,000 to 1,350 students.

Spencer spearheaded the construction of the E.H. Little Library, opened in 1974, as the major capital project of his administration. He was justifiably proud of the evolution of  public radio station WDAV-FM, 89.9, from an on-campus student operation, the creation of which Spencer approved in 1969, to an admired classical music station serving the greater Charlotte, N.C. area.

“Sam has been a personal role model for me since 1955, since I was a naïve freshman, and he was Davidson’s dean of students,” said John W. Kuykendall, who succeeded Spencer as president of Davidson. “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.’”

Hansford Epes, the college’s former registrar and Professor Emeritus of German and Humanities, also praised Spencer’s leadership during changing times. “President Spencer recognized that Davidson had a larger role to play than the one with which we had become somewhat comfortable,” Epes said in an obituary on the college website. “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.”

Said current Davidson President Carol Quillen: “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. 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.  I join with the college family in boundless gratitude for his life so well lived.”

Spencer was born in 1919 in Rock Hill, SC, the son of Samuel Reid Spencer and Mary Thomson Spencer, and grew up in Columbia, S.C. In 1936 he enrolled at Davidson College, where he graduated as a Phi Beta Kappa summa cum laude history major and salutatorian of the class of 1940 after serving as president of the student body and editor of the Davidsonian.

A cadet major and executive officer in the ROTC at Davidson, Spencer was commissioned into the Army infantry soon after his graduation in 1940, where his first assignment took him to the 24th Infantry, an African-American unit. That experience, as noted in the citation for Spencer’s 2005 Legacy Award from the Urban League of Central Carolinas, “opened his eyes, mind and heart in a way that would have been impossible otherwise.”

Transferred to other duty from the 24th, Spencer taught military science at Davidson until 1943 and in 1944-1945 served in Europe as an intelligence officer with the Eighth Air Force.

Released from active duty at the end of World War II, Spencer enrolled, under the GI Bill, in graduate school at Harvard University, where he earned M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in the emerging field of American Social History. While at Harvard, he met Ava Clayton Clark, whom he married in Abingdon, Va., in 1948.

Spencer studied under Arthur Schlesinger Sr. at Harvard and wrote a lengthy paper on W.E.B. DuBois, a project inspired in part by the inequities he observed while serving with the 24th Infantry. Subsequently, he was commissioned to write a biography of Booker T. Washington for Little-Brown’s American Biography Series, which was published in 1955, four years after Spencer returned to Davidson as assistant to president John R. Cunningham. In 1954 he was named dean of students and associate professor of history at Davidson, advancing to full professor in 1955.

In 1957, Spencer left Davidson to undertake a new challenge as president of May Baldwin College in Staunton, Va. Under his leadership, Mary Baldwin thrived and prospered, undertaking capital projects that included the construction of a new dining hall and a dormitory that bears his name. As was the case throughout his life, Spencer was eager to embrace the influences of diverse cultures. At Mary Baldwin, he nurtured opportunities for foreign study and educational exchanges in Spain, France, England and India.

In 2007, Mary Baldwin honored him with the dedication of the Samuel R. Jr. and Ava Spencer Center for Civic and Global Engagement.

In 1965-1966 Spencer served as a Fulbright Lecturer at the University of Munich in Germany. From 1966-1968 he served on Davidson’s Board of Trustees before returning to the college as its 14th president in 1968.

In what would become a hallmark of his career, Spencer assumed a leadership position in every endeavor that earned his commitment. President Jimmy Carter appointed him to the Board of Foreign Scholarships, which oversees the Fulbright Program for the United States, and he served as its chair in 1982. He took leadership roles in the North Carolina Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, the Southern University Conference, the Southern Association of Colleges for Women, the Council of Presidents, the Association of Governing Boards and the Commission on Government Relations of the American Council on Education.

Spencer chaired the board of directors for the Association of American Colleges. After leaving Davidson in 1983, he was named president of the Virginia Foundation for Independent Colleges in Richmond and remained in that role until 1988. In 1990 he served as interim president of Hollins College in Virginia during a presidential search there.

Spencer was an elder in the Presbyterian Church and served on the board of directors of five leading Presbyterian institutions: Davidson College, Mary Baldwin College, Agnes Scott College, Warren Wilson College and Union Presbyterian Seminary, the last of which he chaired.

Spencer spent the balance of his life in Davidson, remaining active in higher education as a member of a search firm for college presidents and as a consultant to the Davidson College development office.

Spencer’s passions included tennis, which he played into his late 80s, Davidson athletics—particularly basketball—and summers in Montreat, N.C.

Spencer is survived by Ava, his loving wife of 65 years, children Samuel Reid Spencer III (Candice), Ellen Henschen (Gary), Clayton Spencer, and Frank Spencer (Melanie); grandchildren Samuel Reid IV and James Spencer, Josef (Susan), Sam, and, Elizabeth Henschen, Will and Ava Carter, Aly and Clark Spencer; and great grandson Spencer Henschen.  Dr. Spencer was predeceased by his sister Sarah Spencer Gramling (Richard) of Cocoa, Florida.

Daughter Clayton Spencer has continued the family’s tradition of higher education leadership. She became president of Bates College in Maine in September 2012. In her inaugural address in October 2012, she acknowledged her parents, holding up her cap and explaining that Sam Spencer had worn it as president at  Mary Baldwin and Davidson.

A service celebrating the life of Sam Spencer will be at Davidson College Presbyterian Church on Monday, Oct. 21, at 2:30pm.  The family will receive friends immediately following the service in the Lilly Gallery in Chambers Building on the Davidson College Campus.

Raymer-Kepner Funeral Home & Cremation Service, Huntersville, NC is assisting the family.  Friends may offer condolences to the family at


Oct. 16, 2013,, “College Family Mourns Passing of President Emeritus Samuel R. Spencer Jr.”

Aug. 13, 2013, Davidson College Archives, Around the D blog, Sam Spencer in his own words

Nov. 1, 2012, Around Davidson column,, “Moving up and out,” with a followup on Clayton Spencer’s inauguration at Bates.


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- who has written 1801 posts on Obituaries.

David Boraks is the founder and editor of Davidson News LLC, which started in 2006 as a neighborhood blog and evolved into a regional community news network. He is a print, magazine, web and radio journalist, with experience in every nook and cranny of the news world, covering everything from local news to Fortune 100 companies to technology to Asia. He lives on South Street in Davidson, in a house that was at the center of a 1914 murder case. Ask him and he'll tell you that story.

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