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  • July 11, 2014 - Reflections

    By Jean S. Horner
    The other day while walking down a corridor in a public building, I saw what appeared to be someone walking toward me. On coming closer, I found it was my own reflection in a huge mirror. For a moment it frightened me. Somehow a full-length reflection of one’s self is a startling thing. ...

Committed to Excellence

By Shirley Shedd
Sept. 14, 2014

"To me, the word ‘Evangel’ is synonymous with President Spence; you cannot say one without the other as they are so conjoined. With his unparalleled presence, he projects stability, confidence, and Christian spirit.”

The Honorable Samuel Der-Yeghiayan, United States District Court judge, summarized what more than a dozen other interviewees said about Robert H. Spence, who retired April 30 after serving as president of Evangel University (Assemblies of God) in Springfield, Mo., for 40 years.

Der-Yeghiayan, a 1975 graduate of Evangel, added, “As a judge, I often rule on the credibility of witnesses. President Spence, in my humble opinion, is a most credible witness for Christ and the kingdom of God. President Spence has been a remarkable influence in my life, and I am grateful to him for the vital role he played in my education and pursuit of the American dream.”

In a series of interviews done by Chris Rudolph, Evangel video production coordinator, many of the interviewees referred to Spence’s positive “presence.” At 6 feet 2 inches, Spence is noticed in any gathering. However, more than his physical size is the quiet confidence, with humility, that he exudes.     

“He inspires me to be something better than I already am,” says Bernie Dana, chair of the Business Department at Evangel. Spence, Dana noted, has an unusual ability to connect with people.

When Spence came to Evangel, beyond his obvious challenge of growing and improving the university, he felt the importance of going outside the four walls of the church.

“I looked at the Springfield community,” he remembers, “and asked, ‘What can I do to make it a better community?’ I knew that as president, I would be the face for Evangel.”

As a result, Spence has been recognized for his community involvement and leadership on the boards of Cox Hospital, City Utilities, the chamber of commerce, airport and other civic organizations. He chaired the Springfield Area Annual Prayer Breakfast for 21 years.

Tom Finnie, former Springfield city manager, says, “Spence brings out the best in people.”

Brian Fogle of the Community Foundation in Springfield attributes to Spence instant credibility. “He cuts across all ideologies and demographics,” Fogle says. “He is the example of what Christianity ought to be.”

As much as he has been involved in the community, Spence’s main focus has been on Evangel’s students and campus and what he could do to help make the university a better place. He is a man of vision.

“I was blessed with an ability to envision what could be,” he says. “I was not deterred by what was at the present. The Lord brought those around me who caught and embraced that vision.”

However, a vision needs leadership to make it happen.

“To me,” Spence says, “leadership has the responsibility to define, describe and outline not just the vision but also the plan to make that vision doable.”

Glenn Bernet, recently retired Evangel provost, served at the school for 51 years and recognized Spence’s servant leadership.

For his part, Spence gives credit to the “people through the years who willingly worked in substandard facilities and yet did such outstanding work.”

Orville Mills, 18-year member of the Evangel University board of directors, says Spence was organized and clear but not overbearing: “He listened to all sides but got us to buy into the plan so beautifully. He understands people and can frame words so well.”

 “My leadership style is to outline areas of authority and responsibility for those under me and let them do it. I am not a micromanager. We work as a team,” says Spence.

Although the obvious physical changes on the campus illustrate his success in expanding the university, Spence’s focus has always been people — the students, faculty and staff of the university.

Recent graduate Jon Sites says, “President Spence knows my name! He sincerely loves the students. He takes time for people and never seems rushed. He is an encourager. He makes you feel special.”

Carol Taylor succeeded Spence as Evangel University president and says of her predecessor, “Dr. Spence embodies the heart of Evangel’s mission to be a comprehensive Christian university committed to excellence in educating and equipping students to become Spirit-empowered servants of God who impact the church and society globally.

“I read recently that respect is admiration with a reason. I thought of Dr. Spence. He is highly respected throughout our city and Fellowship. That respect rests on 40 years of reasons that have blossomed into a deep admiration for who he is as much as for what he has done to nurture the mission of Evangel University.”

The one keyword that came through in all the interviews was “integrity.” For Spence, this has been engrained in his DNA from his younger years.

“For example, I watched my grandfather look at the change he received from a clerk and noted that he had been given too much,” Spence recalls. “He quickly returned that to the clerk.

“I was taught that my word was my bond. If I said I was going to do something, I had to do it. If my father assigned me work to do, I needed to do it and finish it. After using tools, I would need to return them to their proper places.”

One of Spence’s hobbies is carpentry.

“I learned from a mentor that just because something was covered up, the work should not be done inadequately,” Spence says. “Everything needed to be done right, square and plumb.”

“Dad always models excellence,” says son Jon Spence, current professor at Evangel and 1988 EU grad. “He always takes time to read the instructions or the map in advance, he selects the necessary tools for the assignment, and measures carefully. Therefore, when it comes time for execution, there’s a quiet confidence that the job is being completed in the right way.”

Spence has been committed to excellence all his life.

“Though we were poor,” he remembers, “I inherited a motivation to be the best. Even as a lad of 8, when I cut the grass, I took great pride that there were no sprigs still standing.”

What kept Spence at Evangel for 40 years? Commitment ... to finish the job, to see the vision fulfilled, and to do what the Lord sent him to do.

George O. Wood, 1962 Evangel alumnus and current general superintendent of the Assemblies of God, says, “Dr. Robert Spence exemplifies commitment to Christ, to his wife, Anne, and family, to Evangel University, the Assemblies of God, the broader Springfield and Missouri communities, and the kingdom of God.

“For 40 years he faithfully led Evangel University, leading the campus from barracks to beautiful buildings. But his most important legacy lies in the lives of the students he shaped through personal decisions and wise decision-making.”

So what does Spence plan for the future?

“I’ve been so blessed,” he says. “I am moving into a different season of life that I am going to enjoy.”

As the new chancellor of the university, Spence will continue representing Evangel in Springfield and throughout the country. However, he has no desire to do a lot of other traveling.

“I will be happy to just have time to read and enjoy my family,” he insists.

His family includes Anne, his wife of 58 years, his three sons and daughters-in-law (all Evangel alumni), and nine grandchildren he dotes on.

When asked what he wants his grandchildren to remember about him, Spence says, “First, I would want them to know that I lived a life of purpose and integrity with a heritage of trusting God, and that there is no question of where I will be spending eternity.

“I would hope they would build on what I have done and go places I wasn’t able to go and accomplish what I wasn’t able to accomplish.”

SHIRLEY SHEDD is a 1962 graduate of Evangel University, served as a professor in the Communications Department from 1981-2006, and has been the university archivist since 2007.



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