Honoring the Life of Ava C. Spencer

September 5, 2019

Ava Spencer pictured at the opening of the Samuel and Ava Spencer Center in 2007.

Mary Baldwin University celebrates the life of Ava C. Spencer, wife and devoted 65-year partner of the late Samuel R. Spencer Jr., Mary Baldwin’s fifth president. Ava Spencer passed away on August 20 at 94 years old.

The couple’s names are well-known to the current MBU community primarily because of the Samuel R. Jr. and Ava Spencer Center for Civic and Global Engagement, the hub for service learning and study abroad at the heart of campus. But their long and dedicated relationship with Mary Baldwin started many years prior.

Ava Spencer pictured at the opening of the Samuel and Ava Spencer Center in 2007.

Samuel and Ava Spencer joined the Mary Baldwin community in 1957, when he was appointed president at the young age of 38. They came to campus as a vibrant, outgoing family with three young children (a fourth would be born in Staunton), and became great favorites among students and the broader community.

Together with her husband, Ava Spencer had extensive experience in higher education — she earned a master’s degree in political science from the University of Pennsylvania and was the first woman to teach at the Wharton School. She was an excellent manager, a gracious hostess, and an international traveler. They both also had close ties to the Presbyterian Church.  

During his tenure as president, Samuel Spencer helped create the Mary Baldwin campus of today, overseeing the addition of two residence halls, Hunt Dining Hall, Pearce Science Center, and Grafton Library. The size of campus nearly tripled by 1970. 

Both he and Ava Spencer promoted civic responsibility, supported the development of study abroad programs, and encouraged the campus to adopt a more global perspective. During summer vacations, they regularly led college students on tours of Europe, taking along their own children to experience different cultures.

They were therefore fitting namesakes for the Spencer Center, which opened in 2007 and has provided countless opportunities for students to extend their academic studies through experiences in local and global communities. Mary Baldwin purposefully wanted to recognize Ava Spencer’s role in a partnership that had brought much prestige and growth to the institution. 

After the Spencers’ time at Mary Baldwin, they made their home in Davidson, N.C., where he served as president of his alma mater Davidson College for 15 years. They maintained close ties to Mary Baldwin throughout their lives, with Samuel Spencer serving on the MBU Board of Trustees from 1996 to 2007. 

One of seven children, Ava Spencer was born on February 25, 1925, in Grundy to Frank E. Clark, a Presbyterian minister, and Ava Clark, a teacher. A remarkable student, she graduated from high school at age 15 and entered Virginia Intermont College before transferring to Mary Washington College.

After graduating from Mary Washington in May 1944, she worked at Oak Ridge, Tenn., as staff support for the Manhattan Project, and then went to graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania. 

During her one-year visiting fellowship at Harvard University, she met Samuel Spencer, a World War II veteran who had earned his doctorate at Harvard. They were married on August 28, 1948, in Abingdon. 

They spent the next 65 years together, until his death on October 16, 2013. Survived by four children, nine grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren, she continued living with determined independence and unquenchable spirit until her own passing.

President Pamela Fox shared that “knowing both Sam and Ava very well was one of my greatest honors. We were fortunate to host them numerous times on the Mary Baldwin campus, with a true highlight being the dedication of our center named for both of them. After Dr. Spencer’s death I remained in touch with Ava, sharing all of the ongoing points of pride from the Spencer Center and Mary Baldwin. I admired Ava as a radiating inspiration and a women of such inner strength and grace.”

A service will be held at 2 p.m. on Sept. 14 at Davidson College Presbyterian Church. For more information, please see Ava Spencer’s obituary.