Ava Spencer, Former First Lady of Davidson College

Ava Spencer, Former First Lady of Davidson College

Ava Clayton Clark Spencer of Davidson, N.C., beloved wife and steadfast partner of the late Samuel R. Spencer Jr., died on August 20, 2019. She was 94 years old.

A woman of extraordinary intellect and broad education, Ava was one of the seven children of Dr. Frank E. Clark and Ava Clark. She was born on February 25, 1925, in Grundy, Virginia, where her father, a Presbyterian minister, served as a “domestic missionary” in this rural area, founding the Presbyterian School for local children.

Her father’s work as a minister and her mother’s as a teacher instilled in Ava a profound sense of the value of education. Always a brilliant student, she completed high school at age 15 and entered Virginia Intermont College before transferring to Mary Washington College.

In May of 1944, after graduating from Mary Washington, Ava began working at Oak Ridge, Tenn., as staff support for the Manhattan Project, the top-secret development of the atomic bomb that ended World War II.

Then came two years of graduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania, where Ava was the first woman to teach a course at the Wharton School, as an instructor in political science. Her studies at Penn led to a one-year visiting fellowship in the Government Department at Harvard. That’s when a chance meeting changed the course of her life.

At a tea hosted by the Harvard Presbyterian Chaplain in February 1948, Ava met Sam Spencer, a World War II veteran in Army Intelligence who attended Harvard on the GI bill and completed his doctorate in American Social History. After their first date, a lecture by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, Sam told his roommate to start looking for someone new to share quarters.

“Why?” the roommate asked.

“Because I just met the girl I’m going to marry,” Sam said.

On August 28, 1948, Ava and Sam Spencer were married in Abingdon. They spent the next 65 years together, until Sam’s death on October 16, 2013.

That marriage also meant a choice for Ava, who turned down a fellowship to study the nature of radical politics in Chile in pursuit of her Ph.D.

After the birth of their first son, Samuel Reid Spencer III, in April of 1950, Sam and Ava moved to Davidson, where Sam served as assistant to President John Cunningham and later as Dean of Students. Their early years together in Davidson brought the addition of daughters Ellen Blakeney Spencer and Ava Clayton Spencer.

In 1957, they moved to Staunton, Virginia, where Sam served as President of Mary Baldwin College until 1968. Years later, Mary Baldwin dedicated the Samuel & Ava Spencer Center for Civic & Global Engagement, aptly recognizing Ava’s role in a partnership that helped elevate the stature of the small women’s college in the Valley of Virginia.

A second son, Frank Clark Spencer, was born in September of 1960. During the summers of their tenure at Mary Baldwin, Sam and Ava regularly led Brownell Tours of college students to Europe, including their own children in the exposure to different countries and cultures.

In 1968. Sam and Ava and their children returned to Davidson, where Sam served as president for 15 years, with Ava as the consummate partner in the intellectual life of the college and the architect of the warm and generous hospitality of the President’s House.

In 1983 their journey together took them to Richmond and the Virginia Foundation for Independent Colleges and ultimately back to Davidson in 1988, first to a house on Lorimer Road—the same street on which they lived when they first came to Davidson in 1951—and finally to The Pines, the retirement home they had helped to found years earlier.

In 2009, a gift to Davidson from close friends Marcus and Carole Weinstein established the Spencer-Weinstein Center for Community and Justice, honoring the service, leadership, and generosity of both couples.

The marriage of Ava and Sam Spencer was the essence of unwavering love and respect, a perfect blend of two human beings ideally suited to each other. Straightforward and practical on the one hand, Ava also possessed a ready wit and a mischievous sense of humor. But her special gifts were the kindness and love she gave freely to any willing recipient.

After Sam’s death in 2013, Ava lived with determined independence, remarkable courage and unquenchable spirit until her own passing in August.

Ava is survived by 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 (Mariah) and Ava Carter, Aly Spencer (Brian Zakutansky) and Clark Spencer (Jenifer); great-grandchildren Spencer Henschen and Sam Zakutansky.

Ava Spencer was pre-deceased by husband Sam Spencer; brothers Frank Clark and Blake Clark; and sisters Caroline Stuart, Margaret Tiffany, Katherine Clark, and Eloise Clark.

A service will be held at 2 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 14, at Davidson College Presbyterian Church.

Memorial gifts may be made to the following:

Spencer-Weinstein Center for Community and Justice
Davidson College
Box 7170
Davidson NC 28035-7170

Clark Scholars
Union Presbyterian Seminary
3401 Brook Rd.
Richmond VA 23227

Spencer Center for Civic and Global Engagement
Mary Baldwin University
PO Box 1500
Staunton VA 24402

Mount David Named Scholars
In memory of Sam and Ava Spencer
c/o Sarah Pearson
Bates College
2 Andrews Road
Lewiston, ME 04240