Thursday, May 22, 2003

The Spencers

A diverse round of applause


The guests of honor arrived late.

Donald and Marian Spencer had to fly out of town unexpectedly. A death in the family. They knew timing would be tight, and the Urban Appalachian Council - which was honoring the Spencers Monday night at the annual Kinship Dinner - offered to pick up the tab for a more convenient flight that might have taken some of the pressure off.

"And, well, you know we wouldn't let them do that," Marian said. Of course not. The Spencers have a lifetime habit of giving to social agencies, not taking. And forget the limo, too. Marian and "Dad" could just zip off the plane and dash to their car. And wouldn't you just know there was an accident on the highway, so Donald made his way around the jam, using side roads, as only a person can do who has lived in a place 80 years or so.

Brave, tough

Still, everybody else had already started to tuck into their Montgomery Inn ribs when Marian burst into the room, lighting it up, Donald in her wake. People abandoned their food and stood to applaud. They are quite a couple.

Pioneers, activists, physically brave and mentally tough. Just this month they worked to pass the school bond levy. Signed people up to vote. Knocked on doors. Gave money. Even though their kids are long gone from the city system. The Spencers do this for children who do not, technically, belong to them.

Marian got her education in Gallipolis, where "my daddy and my grandfather paid for lawyers" to force the high school to take black students. Then she came to the University of Cincinnati in 1938 to find that black students were not allowed to attend dances. "So, naturally, I worked to get that changed."


She took her kids to Coney Island in 1952. "I was not unafraid," she said. "My heart beat very, very fast." Still, she demanded to buy tickets. "I couldn't have my boys growing up thinking everybody else could do something they couldn't. If you let this stand, you are telling them they are less than other children."

The distinguished Judge Nathaniel Jones made the official presentation after an unofficial harmonica serenade by City Councilman Jim Tarbell, which was rather lovely, perhaps because of considerable assistance from musicians Katie Laur and Ed Cunningham. It was a charming and high-minded occasion, by turns solemn and funny and inspirational.

Much like the honorees themselves.

Even if you were up to your elbows in barbecue sauce, as I was, it was a chance to learn. For instance, Dolly Parton and Elvis are not the only famous Appalachians. So are opera diva Kathleen Battle and actor George C. Scott. There are more than 213,000 white and black Appalachians in Hamilton County. Farmers and coal miners and hunters came here to find a better life, which the honorees said clearly begins with the opportunity for an education.

Coming together to honor Donald and Marian Spencer were at least one nun, a preacher, another judge or two, some teachers, bankers, builders, politicians, sales reps, social workers and civil servants. Some Appalachians. Some not. But on this evening they were related.

This Kinship Dinner, literally and figuratively, was in the heart of the city.

E-mail or phone 768-8393.

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