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Dr. Robert Spence: 'Extremely Grateful' After 40 Years at Evangel

A page out of the book, "Spence Legacy: A Tribute to Anne Spence and the Work of the Evangel Ladies Auxiliary."

Dr. Robert Spence had served as president of Evangel University since 1974. On May 1, a day after his retirement, he officially assumed his new role as part-time chancellor.  KSMU’s Samantha Nichols sat down with the longtime leader and brings us this report.

“I am just extremely grateful for the privilege to have been a part of the lives of more than 30,000 students and be a part of Evangel during these formative years.”

Sitting in the Anne Spence Heritage Room, dedicated to his wife this past April, Dr. Robert Spence reflects on his time as president of the private Christian school located in Springfield. He is among a small group of college presidents who have served at least 40 years.

Spence grew up in Montgomery, Alabama. The son of a preacher, Spence’s path was not originally in the direction of ministry or leading a university.

“I attended the University of Alabama, started as a pre-med student, and close to the end of my sophomore year, I felt a distinct call to ministry,” said Dr. Spence.

Likening it to how he knows when he his hot or cold, Spence said he just knew that his life was going to change. He stayed at the University of Alabama and changed his major from biology to history before entering the School of Education. Decades before he would be asked to serve as president of Evangel, he saw a partnership between faith and education.

It was during his time at the University of Alabama that Spence met his future wife.

“We were engaged at Thanksgiving of my senior year and then were married in the summer, following my graduation,” said Spence.

At the time of their wedding, Spence had been serving a local church and continued to do so as he entered graduate school and began teaching high school history classes. Spence was quite busy between starting a church in Tuscaloosa and then moving to Mobile to pastor a different church.

During his first year as a pastor in Mobile, he was elected to the Board of Directors of Evangel, leading him to frequently visit Springfield and become increasingly involved with the school. After six years of serving on the board, then-president Dr. Robert J. Ashcroft retired and Spence was asked to assume the presidency. In transitioning from pastor to president, Spence drew inspiration from the biography of Dr. Bill Bright, the founder of Campus Crusade for Christ.

“It really made an impact on me because the thesis of the book, the real message of the book, was investing in college students is the most effective way of helping change the world,” said Dr. Spence.

Following the presidency of Ashcroft, someone who Spence described as a “virtual legend,” was “daunting.” Spence noted the “radical” change for his wife, going from pastor’s wife to first lady, and the change it meant for Evangel’s students.

“You can imagine what it was like when we would come to campus or would eat in the cafeteria, the students having been accustomed to a grandfather image and now here’s someone coming in with a two-year-old,” said Spence.

Spence described working with college students as “investment-oriented.” Unlike the more immediate results he saw as a pastor by preaching every week, inviting people to church or marrying people, Spence noted that it takes several years to hear how a person’s time at Evangel has influenced the course of his or her life. But after serving four decades as president, Spence has experienced many returns on his investment. While at a grocery store, a woman approached to tell him how Evangel had affected her family.

“And she said, ‘Oh, my son is a student at Evangel. And my brother and his wife graduated from Evangel. And they’re doing this, this, this, and this,” said Dr. Spence.

Not only can Spence observe the accomplishments of his current and former students, they can observe his many achievements just by walking around the campus. Dr. George Wood is the superintendent of the Assemblies of God church, Evangel’s affiliated denomination.

“This saying is used of one of the Caesars, I think Augustus Caesar, he found Rome brick and left it marble and Dr. Spence found Evangel in barracks and has left a beautiful brick building campus,” said Dr. Wood.

The full process of transforming Evangel’s campus started in 1963, 11 years before Spence would become president, with the construction of a library. After constructing a gymnasium and some student housing, the university still lacked most permanent classroom buildings. To complete the project, Spence and his team spent hundreds of hours settling on a vision for the university.

“When we built the second academic building over here, we still had barracks in the middle section of the campus, in the quadrangle, and when that building was completed, the new academic building, we were able to remove all these barracks,” said Dr. Spence.

So many years ago as he looked across his transforming campus, Spence was approached by a student.

“He said, ‘You know, when you look at this,’ and he just kind of panned around from the fine arts to the student union and all around to this building, ‘it’s almost like there was a plan.’ Exactly!” said Dr. Spence.

Spence’s plans were more than just the impressive construction project, they were academic and spiritual. And as Dr. Wood explained, his impact is even larger than the campus.

“His real legacy is far more than the campus. His legacy is in the lives of the multiplied thousands of students that he’s impacted that are serving Christ in the marketplace and in the church all over the world,” said Dr. Wood.

Spence wanted to build on the foundation of excellence that had already been established, noting that Evangel had been “blessed” from the start by attracting a strong faculty that believed in the compatibility between faith and academic pursuits.

Spence said that his wife had greatly impacted his time as president from leading fundraising campaigns to purchase things like a pipe organ for the chapel to playing a major role in the Ladies Auxiliary.  She also founded a ladies prayer group at Evangel.

“Every Tuesday afternoon these ladies would meet and they would spend time in prayer for the needs of our students and other needs that were identified here on the campus and off campus. And she was the leader of that until just a year ago,” said Dr. Spence.

Spence had planned to retire five years ago, but agreed to stay through the construction of the university’s final building. One year into that time period, plans to consolidate Evangel, Assemblies of God Theological Seminary and Central Bible College were announced, prompting him to stay through that process as well.

Spence will now serve as chancellor for the university, a part-time role in which he will essentially serve as an ambassador for Evangel. In addition to that next step, Spence says he will do “whatever I would like to do.”

After 40 years as president, it’s safe to say that such an approach to retirement is well-deserved.