Since the first moment students walked through the doors of Virginia Peninsula Community College, Dr. Turner Spencer was there. From its start in 1968, and while the College was known as Thomas Nelson, Spencer made educating students his mission.
In the ensuing 55 years, Spencer served as a biology professor, department head, professor emeritus, a hiring committee member, and, most recently, as a member of the Educational Foundation at the College, which disperses more than $100,000 in scholarships each year.
However, he’s 88 and figures it’s about time to step back from any official role with the College. He has tried to do so a number of times, only to be drawn back into it.
“Every time I get ready to give it up, someone tells me I’ve got to wait,” he said with a laugh.
The most recent “waiting” had to do with finding a successor to College President Dr. John Dever. Spencer served on the review committee for current President Dr. Towuanna Porter Brannon, who took over as president in January 2021.
He realizes there’s always another project in the works, including new buildings, so if he waited until nothing was going on, he never would leave the College.
“It’s about time for me to give it up,” he said of his role on the Educational Foundation board, which is holding its annual recognition dinner Tuesday, Nov. 14, at the Holiday Inn Newport News.
Dr. Brannon said it’s difficult to measure what Spencer, who officially retired from the College in 2001, has meant to the College and the community.
“He's impacted so many people's lives,” she said. “He's just so extraordinary.”
Spencer grew up in Emporia and attended Virginia State University in Petersburg, earning a bachelor's degree in biology in 1957. He spent two years on active duty in the military, with assignments in Fort Still, Oklahoma, and Fort Hood, Texas. He stayed in the reserves for almost two more decades, retiring as a major. He earned a master’s in science from VSU in 1965, a master’s in education from Hampton University in 1967, and an Ed.D. in biology from the College of Willliam & Mary in 1976.
His teaching career began in 1961 at Huntington High School in Newport News where he stayed until joining the College when it opened. He was intrigued with the community college system from the start.
“We had junior colleges and we had institutes, but Virginia started a system called a community college that was new,” he said. “I got fascinated with the whole idea of what a community college is all about.”
That fascination never waned, in part because he said his teaching role extended beyond the classroom.
“We had to somewhat educate the community and the state as to what a community college is all about,” he said. “When I was an undergrad, there was no such thing as a community college. (The system) wasn’t even developed.”
Educating the community included making people aware of workforce development, another aspect of the College where he was involved. He helped form the Faculty Senate and made sure the faculty was involved in the community, which he certainly did as a longtime Hampton City Council member. He’s also been involved in the Virginia Municipal League and national political organizations. Awards, plaques and certificates citing contributions to his community cover more than three walls in his Hampton home.
During his time at the College, he had opportunities to leave, but never did.
“I looked at other jobs, other places around the city and around the state, around the country, but when you have a nice position and a nice place, you’re comfortable,” he said.
Of all the roles he had at the College, teaching was his favorite.
“It was fun,” he said. “The students were good to work with.”
He acknowledged it wasn’t easy, but it was his pleasure.
“There was something about being in there with young people,” he said. “It keeps things alive, and I enjoy that.”
Spencer, who is 88, was married to his first wife, Lottie, for 49 years. They had two children, a daughter and a son (who passed away). He has one grandson and one great-granddaughter. He and his second wife, Delores, have been married for 11 years. She also is a supporter of the College.
If he hadn’t gone into education, Spencer would have gone into medicine. He even thought of attending the University of Virginia medical school or the Medical College of Virginia.
He said the College’s Education Foundation has been his backbone for a number of years but realizes it’s time for one era to end and another to begin. Community colleges now are a more viable option for many, so that goal has been reached. However, people now need to understand the quality of education available through all of Virginia’s community colleges and how education beyond high school is important.
“We have some good public schools, and getting a high school degree is great,” he said. “But you also need to take advantage of the fact that we have a two-year institution. You need that two-year degree at a minimum if you want to succeed.”
Dr. Brannon is appreciative of what Spencer and his family have done for the College and for her.
“They are incredible. They have given me so much advice and guidance since I’ve been here,” she said. “They are wonderful contributors to the College.”
She said she’s crying on the inside.
“Just sad for me, but happy for him,” she said.
Everyone who has encountered Spencer and his family knows the feeling.
For more information on the College’s Educational Foundation, visit www.vpcc.edu.