I looked through some family pictures on my Birthday, and this one made me think of what my father has given me. He’s given me something more permanent than good hair, and more powerful than money. He’s given me values and meaning, though it took me years to discover that. And when I did, I was drawn to the story of what his father gave him. And the father before him, and the father before him, all the way back as far as Spencer legend will go. This is quite far when you are a Spencer, and you don’t let too many facts ruin a good story, which is the what is about to happen here…
It is was actually deSpenser to start, which means the steward or butler in French. Robert Despenser held the office of royal steward, or dispenser, under King William II. aka William the Conqueror and Despenser’s surname derived from his office. He and his brother Urse (catchy!) were from Normandy, as was Big William. A tapestry hanging in Bayeux sums this all up nicely, and if you went there, you could see it. We passed by it on the way to St. Michel, a place of Spencer legend that I’ll talk more about later.
1744 Joseph Spencer
We now fast forward 700 years, because nothing much happened… that we know of… until Joseph Spencer came to America and settled in Penn’s Woods in 1760, the beneficiary of King “Mad” George’s land grant which we know to be referenced in Clearfield County papers as 50,000 acres. From this auspicious start in the new world, we know three things; 1) Joseph was miffed enough at his Brit family to turn rebel and fight for the Revolution in 1776, 2) all that acreage made for fantastic coal mining, and 3) by the next generation or two, ours had been whittled away to a few shaft mines in Barkeyville, PA (yes, that is a town).
[There is another Samuel Joseph Spencer in lost in Ancestry.com. It happens]
1825- Miles Sharpless Spencer
He left his son, Miles Sharpless Spencer, a farm and a coal mine, this we know for sure. But what we can infer from simple research on Ancestry is that he also left him vigor and vitality. Miles it appears, had himself 24 children, the last coming at 74 years of age. When the laughter dies down on that awesome feat of 19th-century vitality, it is fair to point out that he did have 3 wives in that time, none concurrent. His last two kids were Herbert and Byrd, my grandfather and his brother, born to Caroline or “Callie” in 1899. I imagine Miles was big on family values, and quite resourceful if he was to figure out how to feed, clothe and raise two dozen children. He died at 76, which is another feat given the year. My father used both names when naming his second and third kids.
1899- Herbert Spencer
And so four short years after his birth in 1899, Herbert Spencer and his brother Byrd ended up at Robert Spencer’s home. Legend has it that Robert welcomed them to his home, on the condition the four-year-olds began work in the coal mine to pay their way. And so for ten years, Herbert honed his work ethic when most of us are debating whether kids that age are ready for nursery school, pre-K, or Kindergarten. Lucky for him, The Great War broke out in Europe when he was just 15 years old, and his sense of adventure brought him to France to “fight the ‘krauts” as he would say. It was quite amazing to me, the man ended up with a Purple Heart for injuries sustained in battle, yet it was an adventure for him, all the way. When you spend 2/3 of your life in a coal shaft, anything must look good once you see the light, literally. Herbert also had an ability to focus, regularly shooting dinner with a .22 rifle. He honestly said to me on more than one occasion: “Son, ‘possum ain’t that bad if it stews with carrots and potatoes”. I’ve not tried it, as yet. But what impressed us all was his will to live– and then some. According to many versions of the story told while the stew was cooking, Herbert suffered multiple wounds to his legs by a German machine gunner after a mustard gas attack. He came to, face down in the mud, alive but without the use of one leg and badly injured with another. He was resourceful enough to use two fence posts as crutches and made it to a French farmhouse, realizing only when he knocked that he spoke no French. The madam opened the door, took one look at him, and slammed it shut. (And we now speak some French at home). He pressed on and eventually made it to the military hospital at St. Mihiel, then to St. Malo, then home to Fort Lee to begin his life and family with the woman who nursed him back to health, Sidonia. They had ten kids, of which my Father Arthur Spencer was the 8th, in 1932.
1932- Arthur Spencer
( I wrote this just after the last time we gathered at my home, on my birthday. I was able to read it to him on visits to St Joseph’s, so he could hear it from me. He thought it too much- I thought it too little). And so we arrive at Arthur Spencer, my father, and the legacy he has given me. The list of meaningful qualities could go on and on. Strangely, he holds himself to such high standards, if he read this he would not think it enough, or true. I know better. We all do.
- He has a Sense of World History. I don’t know where he got it. His father fought in WW-I and regaled him and his brothers with stories of the “The Great War” in Europe. But his true passion was WW-II history, and plenty of Spencers fought there as well, including the first waves of Normandy. We once took an epic trip called 2 Fathers, 2 Sons, 2 Wars where Matusky’s and Spencers retraced our father’s steps in Europe, flying vintage war planes, hiking Omaha beach and liberating Paris. Our favorite movie in the war genre was “Where Eagles Dare” and his favorite play was “Sound of Music”, which was set in the same era. I blame our move to Stowe Vermont on this movie, but that’s another story for another time.
- He adores Storytelling. Stories keep getting better each time they are told, except in a Spencer house, where they improve with quantum leaps. Dad was a storyteller par excellence. Stories of his football exploits, boxing matches, burger flipping or bookkeeping all had a flair each time they were told. He tickled ape’s toes in zoos. He flew to Zurich to start a bank. He stole the cream off the milk container when he lugged it home. He raced souped-up Model-T’s on weekends. Basically, anything that ever happened to him- and some things that didn’t- became fodder for the Spencer organ. It didn’t hurt that he was the most engaging orator in the room, but when he opened his mouth, everybody listened. Audiences weren’t hard to come by, led by his #1 fan, his wife and my mom, Nancy Lou.
- He loves Adventure. Life is best lived as an epic, Dad believed. His sense of adventure probably began with his trip to a college named the Mount Union, which no Spencer had ever considered up to that time. The roller coasters at Cedar Point, the broodmares in Lexington, the Beechcraft we’d fly to nursing homes around the Midwest. He consulted to a banker in Switzerland, a dentist in Italy, and most anyone that would listen in Beaver PA. He built a restaurant in the midwest with tablecloths (!) and singing waiters and chicken cordon bleu.
- He could Fix Things. Being resourceful was another trait that brought meaning to all that followed him. He fixed cars for a living, and knew every engine he laid eyes on. He would garden, he was decent with tools, and he loved to assemble things- beds, toys, bikes, you name it. Later in life, I think he didn’t want to be known as a mechanic as a trade that was looked down upon. But we all knew the truth- he was handy with cars!
- He is humble. Dad lives a humble life. He is a great listener, and people respond to this the most. There’s nothing like a person who asks questions about people in your life, remembers things about you, and addresses you like you are the only one in the room.
- He has Presence. I often said, if the lights were out in a room and my father entered, people would know he was there. His presence is just something that changes the electrical charge in any space he enters. His public speaking was natural from the time I first heard it, on the stairs at the Martha Todd House, a restaurant in PA. He would m/c the evening just as smooth as silk, and then tell corny jokes from 3×5 cards as if he didn’t remember them all.
- He has Athleticism. No joke, this guy was an athlete. He threw vicious lefty curveballs, he ran like a Pamplona Bull, and I imagine he delivered jarring blows on the gridiron. He taught me how to hit a baseball, well. He showed me what a spiral looked like on a football, and coached me in baseball, football plus ping pong, pool, skiing, basketball, horseshoes any anything else where the score was kept. To this day, hugging him is a large (XXL) reminder of the barrel-chested DNA of his fathers. I don’t think he was very fast but always taught me to keep the legs pumping and never go down early. He would probably be stripped of the ball in today’s game, but in 1956 he inflicted a lot of bruises on people.
- He adores Family traditions. Thanks to him, we have many simple, family oriented things we do. We sit for family dinner, we have family placemats, we pray or say some thank you before meals. We make breakfast, and on weekends we make big breakfast. We plant gardens and do chores around the house. We ride bikes together. We swim together. We talk on long car rides. We watch old movies together. we listen to country music. Christmas, Easter, even the fourth of July are prosecuted with gusto.
- He always had Big city dreams but kept his small town boyhood. Dad revered New York City. When he was transferred to New York Life’s main office, he was thrilled to hob-nob with the bigs on Madison Park. And the hob-nobbing continued into the night, at decent pasta places like Pronto and at bars like the Carlyle, he could get one soda and talk it up well into the evening. He loved the Plaza and Eloise. He loved the Essex House, Broadway, and Wall Street. His favorite song, for awhile at least, was New York, New York.
- He Perseveres. The man is a study in dedication and iron will. He told stories of how he learned his crafts, be that mechanic, bookkeeper, an insurance salesman. I’m sure none of it came on a platter, and he had to learn each from scratch. But he also persevered through life’s challenges in both health and finances.
- He has Spirituality. Dad discovered Christian Science sometime around 1970 and took to it immediately. Not your average choice for the 11th or 12 children from Central- PA coal country. He read at the church (public speaking) but more importantly he practiced his own version of what the religion taught: #1 Christ was a good guy, be like him, and #2 most things are healed by the simple rule: mind over matter. Though epic health and emotional challenges, he never lost touch with the basics of this rule, and the benefits of CS.
1963- Miles Spencer
I can honor my fathers, all of them, by living and sharing the best of what they gave me. That could be humble Midwestern values, a love for Athletics, a curiosity for Exploration and Discovery, a love of Food and Family, and that Indomitable Spencer will. Dad often confides in me that he feels he hasn’t given me enough. I tell him he’s nuts, but this is the first time I have actually stopped to write it.
2011- Grayson Max Spencer
Will know all this one day.