Remembering John Spencer
Ned Groth, Spring 2016
(AuthorÕs note: This biographical remembrance is based on documents and personal communications, including yearbooks, class newsletters, letters John or Diana wrote to me, conversations we had, and my own recollections. I have woven in a few anecdotes from classmates, other alumni and others who knew John. My goal is to create an honest and loving portrait of our former master, as we knew him. While IÕve striven for factual accuracy, I take full responsibility for any errors. This remembrance can be amended, if need be, as others contribute their own memories to it. –NG)
"Klondike!" The nickname would echo down the halls of Brethren's Workshop, through Wickersham, across the soccer field and down the ski slope. It was our junior year and we'd known John for only a few weeks. As this Yearbook photo shows, he was young, eight years older than most of us, and pretty green. He taught US History, coached the varsity soccer team and was an assistant housemaster in Brethren's. All of us being so young, we and John did a few dumb things with and to each other. What boys did, and probably still do, was try to provoke and outfox the authority figures. In John, fresh out of college and in his first teaching job, we found an irresistible and often easy target. On John's side, he was learning on the job, and like most first-time teachers, he made his share of minor mistakes. In the end, it's hard to say whether we had more impact on him than he had on us. However that transaction may have worked out, and despite (or maybe in part, as a result of) the pain it inflicted at the time, we all learned some lessons, grew up a bit in the process, and moved on to bigger and better things.
Later on, John looked back on his four years at Darrow as his formative teaching experience, and he and Diana remained connected with and devoted to the school. As one of his students, I can't say I was particularly inspired to study history—even then, I was already inclined toward science and history was just a required course I had to get through. But I thought he was an effective teacher, and a fundamentally decent and public-spirited man whom we treated rather badly, which I look back on as unfair and unkind of us. Yeah, life is a bitch, and John's attitude seemed to be, I'm learning, and what doesn't kill me makes me stronger. But still. We kind of went overboard with the hazing-the-new-teacher routine. I felt it was excessive at the time (but there didn't seem much I could do about it), and later wished I'd apologized to him when I had the chance. As many young teachers do, John had trouble asserting/exercising authority, tried at times to be one of the boys, while at other times he was too dictatorial, with a lot of learning by trial and error. Fortunately he had some good role models (in administrators and other faculty), he grew rapidly during the two years we knew him, and after we parted, his growth—and his good works and positive impacts on his students—certainly continued.
John was a distant cousin of Winston Churchill (whose mother was American, and whose full name was Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill) and also of Lady Diana Spencer (aka Princess Di, aka to us, "Oh, that other Diana Spencer"). He grew up in Connecticut; his parents were Clayton and Frances (nee Means) Spencer. He was graduated from Kingswood Academy, majored in history at Trinity College, Hartford, graduating in 1958, then got a master's degree at Columbia in 1960. That fall he started at Darrow, and may have been the last teacher Lamb Heyniger (who died in October that year) hired. He joined Ed Wilkes in the History Department, replacing Larz Anderson, who had left for another position after half a dozen years on the faculty.
One of the first issues that must be addressed is, where did "Klondike" come from? Several members of the Class of 1961 (among them Sloan Auchincloss, Chip Detwiller) and our own Howdy Davis (not from beyond the grave, I asked this question several years ago when I began doing research for this memorial) stated authoritatively that it was inspired by a hat John wore, possibly shown in this not-very-sharp yearbook photo of John with the late Bill Ewald '61. It was one of those winter hats with furry ear flaps; John wore it often and tended to leave the flaps unbuttoned and, um, flapping. Carl Sharpe adds that John also wore a bulky overcoat and galoshes, and the overall impression indeed was that of a refugee from the Yukon gold rush. Thus the moniker was born; Howdy credited it to Jerry McGee, maybe with an assist from Chuck Currie. People liked it and it stuck, for whatever sensible and/or irrational reasons those things happen.
When I ask myself why John was hazed so unmercifully, it must be basically because we wanted to, and he hadn't figured out how to prevent or short-circuit it. I recall some incidents we cannot be proud of. For instance, there's the Ex-Lax in his drinking water stunt that Gene Cook and I pulled one night in the dining hall, which I have described in Gene's memorial. Another time, one rainy Saturday, I (as a JV player) was watching a varsity soccer game; I was standing by the team bench. The referee had not shown up that day so John was out on the field officiating. He was wearing a yellow slicker and fisherman's hat and those trademark Klondike boots. The field was very muddy and getting worse; the rain had not let up. Guys would come off the field, sit on the bench, clean grass-laced mud out of their cleats, make mud balls and, as soon as his back was turned, fling them at their coach—his own players! No other teacher in my years at Darrow had to put up with that kind of treatment (as far as I was aware), but John let it roll off him. He hunkered down, kept working hard and learning, and as the year went by he gradually earned our respect and affection.
In the 1961 yearbook, John was honored—if that's the right term—with a cartoon, reproduced below, showing him teaching his class. I'm not sure he actually said "akchury" (maybe so), but the pipe was definitely an affectation of his and, in the boy-have-things-changed-for-the-better category, he did smoke it in class, though it was often unlit. He may have sat on his desk from time to time, too. (I love this cartoon—drawn by Atsushi Tamaru—for another reason, that is, the clearly recognizable caricatures of himself and his classmates. I can spot Atsushi, Kazu Sohma, John Spohn, Chip Detwiller, Bill Low, Jerry McGee; who else do you see?)
My own memories of history class with John have mostly faded, but I can recall two incidents in particular. One time, after Christmas vacation, I came back to school with a new pair of slacks. In fact they were "gently used"--my mother often took clothes my brother and I had outgrown to the local thrift shop, and on one of those trips she found a pair of slacks that were just my size and bought them. They were green, a color I almost never wore, but well tailored and made from a very fine wool fabric. I was wearing them one day and sitting in the front row in history class. "Nice pants," John said. He was right—they were a cut above what I usually wore—but it took me by surprise, getting a fashion review in class from the teacher.
The other event occurred in the spring of senior year, and I don't recall the exact details, but I think we were reading a supplementary text of some sort. We were studying the period of the late 19th century when the so-called "robber barons" became an important focus of US politics, and John might have been reading aloud from the text, or maybe I was reading from it, and a historical figure named Shelby Cullom came up. Cullom was twice governor of Illinois and then served five terms as US Senator from that state, and in the context we were reading about, he chaired a Senate committee that investigated capitalistic excesses of the robber barons. When I either read or heard John read the name "Shelby Cullom," I reacted (out loud), "Gee, where have we heard THAT name before?" John instantaneously yelled ''Groth—out!" and tossed me out of class. Now, I thought my comment was pretty innocuous; in fact, it could have led to any number of interesting classroom discussions. But as noted earlier, John hadn't yet mastered the subtleties of exercising his authority, and he probably felt threatened by at least some of those possible conversations. So he threw my ass (and the rest of me) out and awarded me three penalty hours for "disrupting class."
To understand why John might have been a little hypersensitive, we need to digress for a while, to talk about John's (by 1962) bride, Diana Davis, and her father. (Take my word for it, this elaborate side journey will enhance our understanding of John.) We first met Di, full name Diana Cullom Davis (there's a hint), early in fall of 1960. She'd come up often to visit from her home in the NYC suburbs, and the kids in John's dorm soon got to know her. She was a very nice young lady, and she and John made a good (dare I say "sweet") couple. This photo shows Di sitting in with John's History Book Club gathering one evening that fall.
When we first met Di, we just knew her as John's girlfriend, a Wheaton alumna, who had met John when he was at Columbia. Like John, she was very likeable and we liked her. Peter Deri told me he and Jay Tanner used to sit next to Di when they were at John's table in the dining hall and in effect, hit on her (to the extent that 16-year-olds can actually flirt with a 22-year-old woman, anyhow.) They did this both to take advantage of the rare opportunity to practice their flirting skills, and mainly, to annoy John, at which they recall succeeding. As much as we liked Di, of course, we were still teenage boys and thus by definition morons (and it was 1960, after all), so we judged her on her looks. She was attractive but her curly blonde hair reminded the class humorists of Harpo Marx. So, "Harpo" she was dubbed, and Harpo she was called, at least behind her back. (Kindness was really in short supply in that environment.)
Marshall Darling, our late and lamented colleague from the class of '63, shared an amusing anecdote with me a few years ago. It was "spring travel day" and as every year, a busload of Darrow kids went to a Red Sox game at Fenway Park. Some time during the later innings of a boring contest, a group of preppies out in right field started yelling "Klondike!" A group in left field answered "Harpo!," and this back-and-forth shouting match went on for the better part of an inning. Marshall said the Globe's sports reporter accurately recorded this "cheering duel" in the next day's paper, without having any idea who had perpetrated it or what it meant. Ah, but I digress from my digression. Let us get back to Diana, for whom John's protectiveness led to my 1962 classroom ejection. It's now time to meet her illustrious father.
Pretty much all we knew about Di in 1960-61 was that she was John's girlfriend/fiancˇe and from Tarrytown. But late that year we learned that her father was Shelby Cullom Davis, seen here, a prominent Wall Street financier, whose ancestry traced back to John Alden, he of Mayflower fame. Di was actually a blue-blooded debutante and the daughter of one of the wealthiest and most influential men in the country, although she'd never have let on and the rest of us hadn't a clue. Her father was a notable Princeton alumnus, class of 1930, and when I got to Princeton I soon learned a lot more about him. During my freshman year, Davis wrote a letter to the Daily Princetonian, complaining in strong language that Princeton had changed too much since his day; it was no longer the WASP country club he had known and loved. His letter vibrated with outrage at the fact that so many, well, Jews and blacks—there were in fact a few dozen of the former and all of five of the latter in my class, out of 800 freshmen—were being admitted, but the straw that apparently broke the camel's back was the lamentable fact that a majority of current freshmen now came from public schools. Davis announced in that same letter that he and some like-minded alumni were forming a group called "Concerned Alumni of Princeton," CAP for short, to pressure the administration to reform its liberal ways and return the university to something more like its former state.
CAP (which many of us irreverently re-dubbed "Conservative, Reactionary Alumni of Princeton," you work out the acronym) was a persistent conservative pressure group that heckled the administration for decades. They made a lot of noise, but had little effect on the directions the university was going, which were driven by changes in society at large and simple market forces. Shelby Cullom Davis was an influential conservative activist beyond those ivied walls. He was a long-time donor and fundraiser for the Republican party, and Richard Nixon appointed him Ambassador to Switzerland, where both Davis and Di's mother, Kathryn, had gotten PhDs (and met as grad students). Later on, he chaired the Board of the Heritage Foundation for many years. All in all, he was a man of great power and substance.
The aforementioned Senator Shelby Cullom, pictured here, was Shelby C. Davis's mother's uncle, thus the similarity of names that caught my attention that day in 1962. But back to 1961É.One early June afternoon I was walking from Wickersham across to Hinckley House and a freshman kid from the dorm, a guy named John Hawley, was walking by and said, "Did you hear about Harpo?!" Hoping there was some juicy scandal afoot, I said, "No, tell me, what, is she pregnant?" "No, no!," John said. "She's worth millions of dollars!" There was indeed a scandal brewing, though not one Di and John were responsible for. But it was plenty juicy—it made the newspapers and Time magazine.
When I arrived at Princeton a year later, the university was in the midst of its largest capital campaign ever to that point, aiming to raise $63 million by 1963. Shelby Davis was its "keystone donor" and had pledged $7 million. According to those press accounts, his plan was to kick off the campaign by taking two trust funds he had set up in the 1930s, for Diana and her brother (Shelby C. Jr.), each worth $3.8 million as of 1961, and having the kids sign their trusts over to Princeton. While that was his plan, it apparently came as a surprise to Di, who had gained control of the assets when she turned 20. When asked to sign over her trust to Princeton, she refused. Her father was furious—so angry that he had his PR firm put out a press release, attacking her as greedy and materialistic. As much as Di may have preferred to keep the dispute within the family, once her father forced the issue, she responded, somewhat mildly given the provocation, that his gift to Princeton was "just for his own glory" and that he "tended to be a bit authoritarian." Clearly this was not a man used to hearing the word "no," especially, one might gather, from his kids. The media, of course, ate it up.
The stories also mentioned that Di was engaged to John Spencer, a teacher at Darrow School, and suggested that her father might not particularly approve of the match, which perhaps had contributed to his pique. And there were other Darrow links. Di was supposed to have gone down to NYC to meet her father and Princeton's fundraisers at the bank, to sign over the trust. Princeton's Director of Development back then was Dave Thompson, Darrow '33 p '65 and a long-term member of the Darrow board of trustees. Diana didn't show up at the bank; instead, she was up at Darrow, describing her dilemma to our chaplain, Jim Wright, asking for guidance. He listened, and hoping not to get in the middle of a pissing match, suggested that she follow her conscience, wherever that led her. When her father found out she'd been talking with Jim, he called the school and demanded that Jim be fired. Charlie Brodhead was then the acting head, and good chaplains being hard to find, Charlie told Shelby to go fly a kite, but Jim had a scare. From our perch on the sidelines, Di and John were "ours" and nobody should be pushing them around; we rooted for Di and were elated when she buffaloed her big-shot dad.
(Historical footnote: Ultimately, the Ambassador and his family did endow the Shelby Cullom Davis '30 Center in the History Department at Princeton; they apparently found a Plan B.)
In June '61, three weeks after that family feud was all over the papers, Di and John were married. When we came back to campus for our senior year, things had settled down, and they were just another nice young married faculty couple (well, a couple named Klondike and Harpo, but by then those had become genuine terms of affection.) So, let's fast-forward to spring of 1962, and my spontaneous comment in history class. Now you can see what triggered me, and probably guess at what might have set John off. It would have been interesting to see where the discussion could have led had we actually talked about Shelby Cullom, Shelby Cullom Davis, powerful aristocratic families, daughters and fathers, wealth, power, privilege and politics, but as history records, no such discussion occurred that day, more's the pity.
The 1962 school year gradually rolled to its close, and our class left Darrow, "Klondike" and "Harpo" behind. John taught there for two more years, grew up some more, and later said he was forever grateful for the chance to work with John Joline and his other colleagues as he learned the ropes. In one letter to me, he apologized for what he perceived as his ineptitude as our teacher. He really needn't have, but he was genuinely humble that way.
Two more yearbook pictures of John are shown here. Below, Current Events Club, fall of 1960. If you didn't know, who would you guess was the adult advisor in this group? And at right, the varsity soccer team (on a sunny day!) in the fall of 1961; by now John is the seasoned, experienced coach.
A few years after we departed Darrow, I started writing annual class newsletters, and we heard regularly from John or Di. In his first letter, in 1968, John asked rhetorically why he'd left a small school where he had a future as a teacher and administrator, to move to Loomis. He said he'd been attracted by the challenge of a larger school where all the students were academic high achievers, but expressed nostalgia for Darrow. "Di and I were so very happy there," he averred, and again expressed his admiration for John Joline. John reported that "Klondike" got to Loomis even before he did, but said he didn't hear it much, since the students had younger teachers "to experiment with." He was still coaching soccer, as an assistant varsity coach, and he mused ruefully that he might have an opportunity to move up to head coach in ten years or so, if the current holder of that position ever decided to step down.
Over the ensuing years John moved on professionally, going from Loomis to Beaver Country Day School, in Chestnut Hill, MA, in 1969, and the year after that, to Dana Hall, in Wellesley. In the latter, an all girls school for grades 5-12, John found his niche, and taught there for the rest of his career. He wrote that he was comfortable teaching all girls—he and Di by now had two daughters, Abby, born in 1964, and Kimberly, born in 1968—and John said he enjoyed being around them so much that it felt natural to be teaching girls, too. His letters described the evolution of teaching philosophies among secondary school history faculties, from the rather stultifying lecture/memorizing facts approach he had followed at Darrow to "discussion and discovery" and the "inquiry approach." He said his teaching had improved greatly since his early years with us, and he was now chairing the history department at Dana Hall, modernizing the curriculum, making history more relevant to "this age of anxiety, confusion and uncertainty," a task John attacked with relish. In one of the letters Di wrote, she said John was really enjoying the innovative spirit at Dana Hall, involving his students (one of whom was the daughter of then NYC mayor John Lindsay) in the design of courses. John and Di were also happy not to have dorm duty any longer; they now had a home of their own, off campus, in Wellesley.
John's 1969 letter bore the return address of Elm Hill Farm, in Brookfield, MA, near Sturbridge. In a 1974 letter, he again mentioned the farm, with a comment like, "You will remember that this farm has been in my family for generations," and offered to sell us "a bushel of apples or a Morgan horse"(!) Actually, despite John's "you will remember," I didn't fully appreciate his farming roots or his connections to Elm Hill until I did some research for this memorial. Elm Hill was not just any old farm, it was one of the largest and oldest working farms in Massachusetts. The historian in John would be amused at the fact that different sources give different dates for when King George III of England granted the land (1200 acres) to one of his ancestors. John himself said it was 1740, so we`ll take that as correct, and he noted that Abby & Kim were the 12th generation of his family (other sources say 8) to live and work on the farm.
Most of what I learned about John's farm came from an article about Elm Hill in The Morgan Horse, a magazine for aficionados of that breed. The farm was famous, in the early 20th Century, for breeding Jersey and Holstein cattle, Morgan horses, and for its fruit orchards and hardwood trees. As a child, John spent his summers on the farm, which was owned by his grandparents, Oliver and Abby Means, then by an aunt and uncle on his mother's side, Blanchard and Louise Means. Elm Hill was the birthplace of Elsie the Cow (a Jersey originally named You'll Do Lobelia), who won a prize at the 1939 World's Fair in New York and became the Borden's icon. Abby Means was a very accomplished horsewoman who bred champion Morgans, and in his time as a child and young man there in the 1940s and '50s, John caught the bug; he became a horseman, a Morgan fancier and a prominent breeder in his own right.
Elm Hill was a leading source of Morgans, known for the quality of their horses. According to the The Morgan Horse, one gelding in particular was John's favorite: Elm Hill Baypather, born 1965, was his show horse and won many prizes, a few of which John mentioned in his letters (and I may also have noted in our class newsletter). This photo, from that same magazine article, is of John aboard Elm Hill Baypather in a show in the 1970s. In 1973 he (the horse that is) was Grand Champion Gelding at the Eastern National Morgan Horse Show. For those of you (myself included) not steeped in the lore of horse breeding, the article, by Helen Herold, which appeared in 2015, offers a peek into that rarefied world and a detailed history of the farm that was so important in John's life.
As the years swept by, John's and Di's letters spoke of their varied lives. While John taught history for 25 years (he retired from Dana Hall in 1986 to be a full-time gentleman farmer), he had also developed a number of rewarding sidelines. Early in their tenure at Dana Hall, John became involved with the Lifers' Group at Norfolk Prison. As described by John, this was a support group that helped with educational programs like the College Behind Walls. By 1974 John was serving as vice-president of the Norfolk group and also supporting a work-release program for life-sentenced prisoners at Medfield State Hospital. John described his work as mostly fund-raising, but Di filled me in once that John was doing much more; he visited the prison weekly, and would bring his students from Dana Hall to meet some of the inmates at the hospital and/or interact with juvenile prisoners. He offered fairly sheltered kids a chance to observe life at the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum, and helped some of the prisoners develop skills and connections that could improve their odds of success if they were released. This good work attracted some media attention, but John never mentioned that, he was doing it for its own intrinsic value. He also used Elm Hill as a teaching tool, once taking a group of 16 young Dana Hall ladies out to experience what farming had been like in the 18th Century. Di noted that he did let them use indoor toilets, but said that for some reason getting up at 5 AM to shovel manure "was not an appealing lifestyle for some."
Di herself was very busy with the roles of wife, mother and volunteer, "all going smoothly most of the time!!" As their girls were growing up, John and Di learned that both girls had learning disabilities. Di became very actively involved with their educations, working hard as a parent, and was very impressed with the educational support networks she found. Both girls enrolled in schools that enabled them to flourish, including the Krebs School in Lexington. Di was also a leader of the Wellesley/Boston chapter of her (Wheaton College) alumnae association, on the board of her alumnae magazine, and involved in support groups for displaced homemakers—that is, women who had spent a decade or more raising a family, then, due to widowhood or divorce, re-entered the work force, but often lacked the resources to do that successfully. Some of her volunteer activities led to legislative proposals, so Di became a familiar figure around the MA state house, lobbying for support of special education programs, assistance for women re-entering the workforce, and other things that caught her interest. At one point she was pushing hard for an energy-conserving bottle bill, she reported. And being a Brownie leader. And somehow they'd been lured back into part-time dorm counseling at Dana Hall. Did we mention that she was busy? At one point she confessed, "Tennis, last but not least, keeps me SANE!"
In one of his letters John congratulated me on my (1969) marriage, "the best institution known to man." In another he talked about how becoming a parent had changed and re-centered his life. At the grand old age of 39, he mused that "My ten year old wrote an essay about me stating 'Daddy is over the hill'," and said he measured his life most now by his family. "We are a very close group," he said. Their letters included reports of many varieties of family fun. The girls enjoyed travel, skiing, hiking, riding, farm life. The four of them spent a couple of weeks one year in Switzerland (visiting with Di's parents), and one summer went to a dude ranch in Wyoming, where, Di happily reported, John helped the "real" cowboys wrangle the horses. Darrow ties were routinely part of their social life in Wellesley. They went to several alumni gatherings in the Boston area, saw Chip and Carly Detwiller ('61) often, helped celebrate John and Jeanne Joline's retirement. After Darrow, the Jolines split their time between NYC and their house in Duxbury, and they and the Spencers would get together often. John was one of the last to encounter our Bob Sherwood before his life came to its sad, premature end.
In 1980 my path crossed again with the Spencer and Davis families. I had recently moved to New York, for the job at Consumers Union I would have for the next 25 years. When Di heard I was in New York, and since my marriage with Alice had ended a couple of years earlier when we were in Washington, I was an eligible single straight male, she offered to help me build a network of social contacts in Westchester County, her home turf. The one "blind date" she set me up with didn't work out (they rarely do), but Di also invited me out to her parents' home in Tarrytown one spring Saturday for lunch, tennis and a swim. I took along a date—one in a long series of not-the-right-people I was working my way through then—and we had an enjoyable time. I met Di's parents, but didn't spend any time talking with them. Frankly I felt I already knew too much about the Ambassador, and was afraid my political disagreements with him might get in the way of polite conversation, so after thanking him and his wife for the kind invitation, I tried to steer clear, which seems silly in retrospect. (Again, several interesting discussions might have taken place, but history records that they did not, more's the pity.)
I did get to see Di again that day, and to meet Abby, who was 16, and as I reported later in the class newsletter, "sick of being told how much she looks like her father." John and Kim were off at a horse show in Northampton that weekend, so I caught up with just half the clan. Di's news from John was that after 20 years of teaching he had decided to go half-time at Dana Hall, and had started a wood business. He had bought an 18-foot trailer and a new truck and was hauling 4 cords of wood at a time from the farm to Wellesley, where a cord then sold for $130. Since he had hired two guys to cut the wood, and had to amortize the truck and trailer, it was not necessarily a profit-making operation, but he was doing something he loved. John was also involved in the Congregational Church of Wellesley Hills (he'd become a deacon) and had published an article in a magazine devoted to history teaching. Di herself continued to be busy with family and volunteer activities, and was taking courses – a finance course in Cambridge, an economics course at Wellesley. She said their daughters "are our pride and joy," had developed an interest in riding, and like their parents, were avid travelers and hikers.
The last class newsletter I wrote was in 1982; after that, increasing responsibilities at work, marriage and children, and growing volunteer activities (including serving on the Darrow board) kept me very busy, and I lost touch with a lot of folks, including John and Di. We did talk on the phone now and then—probably during Darrow telethons I participated in—but I have no letters or newsletters to aid my memory of those conversations. Of course, some major events took place in that period. In 1986, John retired from teaching and focused on working the farm. Around 1990, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis; I recall hearing that from him, and being impressed with how calmly and philosophically he accepted it. Over the coming years the disease would progressively take away his mobility, his ability to ride and to work the farm.
Diana's father passed away in 1994. She and her mother Kathryn (who lived to be 106!) set up the Shelby Cullom Davis Foundation, and later the Kathryn W. Davis Foundation, and their focus turned to philanthropy. Abby and Kim grew up, as children generally do. Abby was graduated from the Masters School in Dobbs Ferry, NY then from Mount Vernon College in Washington DC, and in 1991 she married Nathaniel Cabot Moffat; he was then about to graduate from Trinity and she was getting a master's degree in ESL at American University. Kim went to Chapel Haven, a school in New Haven, and in 2004 married Richard LaManna, whom she met there. Abby and Nat's children, Julia and Spencer, were flower girl and ring bearer, respectively, at their aunt's wedding.
The last time I saw John was at the dedication of the Samson Environmental Center at Darrow, in 1998, where this photo was taken. Di and John (among many others) had been enthusiastic supporters of the project, and assembled, with Mike and Amy Clarke, John Joline and Larry van Meter, Dick Nunley and other former faculty, for the opening ceremony. John, seated in his wheelchair next to Holly Hoopes Hudimak, was delighted to see me and catch up a little. We had only a brief chat, and I don't recall seeing Di that day, although she must have been there.
Four years later, on April Fools day in 2002, John lost his 12-year battle with MS and passed away. Although we all had ample time to prepare for it, I personally felt the loss acutely. Part of that I think was that I still hadn't fully resolved my guilt over how badly we treated him when he was a first year teacher, although John seemed to get over it almost as soon as it happened. He was 66, and had accomplished a great deal, but death took him far too soon, and I know this kind, gentle, generous and loving man has been sorely missed by all who knew him.
His family have forged on and prospered in the years since he left us. Di (at left) now lives in the Washington, DC area and is president of the family foundation, renamed the Diana Davis Spencer Foundation. As of 2014 it had $1.5 billion of assets and gave out 92 grants, totaling $12 million. The foundation honors some of her father's goals and priorities—it supports academic institutions that promote free enterprise and is a core donor of the Heritage Foundation, for instance—but Di has clearly put her own imprimatur on their philanthropy. The foundation also supports child welfare, civil society development, youth and family services (her mother was a pillar of support for Planned Parenthood), global understanding, the arts, environmental sustainability, and a variety of other progressive causes.
John said they were a close-knit family, and it seems they still are. Abby, shown here (and yes, she still looks like her father!), is the Chief Operating Officer and Vice President of the Diana Davis Spencer Foundation, and Kim, while not involved in day-to-day operations, is a trustee. In Abby's case, the acorn seems to have fallen fairly close to the (grandfatherly) tree: She chairs the board of the Media Research Center, a Washington PR shop dedicated to "Fighting Liberal Media Bias!" She has served on the board of the Heritage Foundation since 2009 and has also been a trustee of the Atlas Network, which promotes free enterprise around the world. She has also chaired the Board of the Daniel Morgan Academy, which is described as a "national security graduate school" in DC, and is a trustee of One Generation Away. Shelby would be proud.
Kim and Richard have a lower profile. They live in the New Haven area; she works at Chapel Haven, their alma mater, and she's the only family member (as far as I can tell) with a Facebook page. You can find her there if you'd like to learn about the public parts of their life.
One sad development since John's death is that the family no longer owns Elm Hill Farm. John was the one with life-long ties to the land, and his passion for farming led his family to spend time there, but without him to hold it together, and none of John's siblings or cousins able or inclined to take over, and with Di and Abby now based in Washington, their bond to the farm apparently dissolved. In 1990, declining milk prices had forced John to sell off his cattle—"The saddest day of his life," Di called it—but he still bred Morgans, harvested squash and hay and wood. In 1991 the farm was added to the National Register of Historic Places, then in 1996, about 1,000 of its acres were donated (by John's aunt Louise) to the Massachusetts Audubon Society as a wildlife refuge. Other parcels were sold off, and eventually the farm was whittled down to a 35-acre tract that included the central mansion (built in 1870), a workshop built by Amasa Blanchard, the first family member to own the land, in the early 1800s, and the cattle and horse barns. Blanchard and Louise Means had a developmentally disabled daughter, Weesie, John's cousin, and for several years Elm Hill served as a center offering kids with autism a chance to interact with farm animals. But after John's death, and after his aunt, Louise Means, died in 2009, the charitable organization running that center realized that it lacked both the finances and the skill needed to operate a farm, and in 2013 the remaining acreage of Elm Hill was sold to someone outside the Blanchard/Means family for the first time in more than 250 years. The new owner, William McCreary, shared some of his plans for the land with Helen Herold for her 2015 article in The Morgan Horse, linked above.
Time passes, and life is changes. John has been gone for fourteen years now, and I can't really explain why it took me so long to write this, but I finally have given him the class obituary he deserved. He lived a good life, taught and helped people in diverse ways for 25 years, and found a way of life—farming and horse breeding—that gave him additional great satisfaction. He married a wonderful, accomplished woman and they built a strong, loving family, which has continued to thrive in his absence. At times John emphatically got the short end of life's stick, but in all the years I knew him, I never heard him complain, not once, not about anything. We will remember him as a humble, happy man who made our lives richer in many ways. If he can hear us now, I hope he accepts this belated "thank you."