The Spencers

Who are Samuel R. Jr. and Ava Spencer?


*this article originally appeared in the May 1, 2007 issue ofThe Cupola.

With an ever-expressive countenance Dr. Sam Spencer, president emeritus of Mary Baldwin University, looked at his longtime wife, Ava, with a knowing and genuine smile. The couple, already much-revered in the halls of the college, had minutes before learned that a new campus center for community service learning and international opportunities will soon bear their names. The Samuel R. Jr. and Ava Spencer Center for Civic and Global Engagement is set to open in fall 2007, marking another step toward realizing the college’s ambitious master plan and a 10-year strategic vision that includes service learning and global outreach as two of its pillars. Its namesakes were simply beside themselves when told last month by the Board of Trustees.

“I am delighted for [Ava] to be included in the naming,” Sam Spencer said. “So often, there are wives who do so much to support their husbands in leadership positions, and they are not always publicly recognized.”

Spencer added that he has enjoyed his unique position as a former president of Mary Baldwin on the college’s Board of Trustees. “It let me return to a close relationship with the institution where I got my start.”

Gathered for a meeting of the Board of Trustees — on which Sam Spencer will serve until July 2007 — the couple was treated to a 3-D virtual tour of the architectural drawings for the Center that illustrate its form and function. The Center’s location in Wenger Hall begins to realize the vision detailed in the Campus Master Plan of a central hub for student life that will include social activities, dining, student organizations, daily business, and student life staff.

Designed around a central circular theme, the Spencer Center is proposed to include meeting spaces and offices off a foyer decorated with flags from around the world and pictures of Mary Baldwin students engaged in service. The Center will promote and encourage civic engagement by building on positive relationships between community agencies and the college, encouraging expansion of service projects, and coordinating speakers and activities to promote civic and global engagement. Events that occurred this year at Mary Baldwin such as a visit by Ashoka Institute representative and social entrepreneur Venkatesh Raghavendra, the community service speaker series, community service during Apple Day, a Spring Break trip to help Katrina victims, and many others, represent the types of things that could be coordinated and enhanced through the Spencer Center in the future.

From a global perspective, the function of the office will also include promoting and facilitating study abroad by providing a central location for information, assisting students interested in study abroad including help with securing financial resources, creating opportunities for thoughtful reflection upon return, and supporting faculty planning study aboard courses. Professional staff at the center will also assist in recruitment and on-campus support of international students.

Spencer’s presidency at Mary Baldwin (1957–68) was highlighted by extensive construction and academic growth, but he also nurtured student engagement on campus and off, set an example by being involved in community organizations, built study abroad programs, and emphasized internationalism on campus. Under his leadership, students helped raise money for the construction of a new library and helped with its landscaping, held “mock” political conventions, and the college hosted a visit by President Dwight Eisenhower. In addition to working with faculty to create study abroad arrangements, he also brought the international community to campus, most notably by setting up a phone-in with alumnae around the world and by encouraging curriculum development in Asian studies. Louise McNamee ’70, Board of Trustees chair, said the association of the college’s latest venture in global civic engagement and the Spencers is a perfect fit. “More than any specific program or accomplishment, their impact here has always been their outlook as educated people who realize that the life of the mind includes stepping outside academia to explore the world.”


1963: Spencer Residence Hall named through petition by students to the Board of Trustees 1995: Spencer Society established to recruit students who serve as Phonathon callers
1984: Spencer Pitcher Award created (presented to the Reunion class with the greatest increase in Annual Fund participation) 2007: Samuel R. Jr. and Ava Spencer Center, in honor of Spencer and his devoted wife, announced to open in fall 2007
1992: Named honorary alumnus and received honorary doctorate 2007: Named president emeritus, an honor bestowed only one other former Mary Baldwin leader

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