Monday, December 17, 2012

Hugo Spencer: A Life Well Lived

Just how long is 98 years?
Francis Hugo Spencer was born on July 20, 1914. This was 22 days after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, an act which left the nations of Europe teetering on the brink of war. Just 8 days after Hugo’s birth the declarations of war began and Europe quickly became drenched in blood. The imperial aspirations that helped feed the fighting are reflected in the fact that in 1914, with the exceptions of Liberia and Ethiopia, ALL of Africa was a colony of some European power.
But the problems of Europe would have seemed far removed to the Spencer family on the piedmont of central Virginia. The Old Dominion was a very different state a century ago. It only had a little over 2 million residents in those days—about a fourth of today’s population. The biggest city in the state at the time of the 1910 census was Richmond with less than 128,000 residents. Lynchburg had 29,494. Roanoke just under 35,000. Charlottesville a paltry 6,765.
The population patterns in America were very different when Hugo was born. There were fewer than 100 million residents in all of the 48 states (just two years earlier New Mexico and Arizona had achieved statehood). Charlotte, Orlando, Miami, Dallas, Houston, Phoenix, San Diego, and San Jose combined had fewer than 300,000 residents. Las Vegas didn’t even exist. With fewer than 30,000 residents the Lynchburg that Hugo first knew was bigger than Orlando, Miami, and Phoenix—combined.
At the time of Hugo’s birth fellow Virginian Woodrow Wilson was in the second year of his first term as President. (Hugo was to see 17 presidents over the course of his life and was qualified to vote in 20 presidential elections.) In that second year of his administration Wilson oversaw the opening of the Panama Canal; the opening of the first Federal Reserve Bank; the completion of the first trans-continental telephone line; and the passage of the Harrison Narcotics Act which was the first federal law to regulate opiates and cocaine—the government’s opening salvo in the still ongoing war on drugs. And with a presidential proclamation in May, the first Mother’s Day was invented. The federal government was a LOT smaller then. The 1914 budget was only $730 million. Even when you figure that to be $16.4 billion in today’s dollars, it still comes to far less than 1% of the current federal budget of $2.469 trillion and .4% of this year’s federal spending. In fact, $16.4 billion is less than what the feds now borrow in 3 ½ days.
In 1914 a first-class stamp was 2 cents.
That year Nevada and Montana became the 9th and 10th states to grant women the right to vote.
1914 was the year that Charlie Chaplin started making movies—and he made 35 that year.
It was the year that Henry Ford introduced the 8 hour work day while more than doubling the wages of his employees to a minimum of $5 a day. It was also the year he developed the assembly line for car production. Ford made 248,000 Model Ts that year—more than all other automobile makers combined. Coincidentally, on August 5th Cleveland, Ohio installed the first electric traffic light in the country.
The month before Hugo was born Honus Wagner became baseball’s first player to achieve 3,000 hits. Just 11 days before Hugo’s birth Babe Ruth was sold by a minor league team to the Boston Red Sox, part of a three player deal that cost the club about $10,000—roughly $200,000 in today’s dollars. Wrigley Field opened that year—and has yet to see a hometown World Series champion. Joe DiMaggio was born in November.
Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan of the Apes was published in 1914.
And on September 26, 1914 fitness guru Jack LaLanne was born. But all those pushups, sit ups, and jumping jacks notwithstanding, Jack died on January 23, 2011. Hugo was 2 months and 6 days his senior and still outlived him by almost two years.
But a long life in and of itself only speaks of good genes, good habits, and good luck. Hugo didn’t just live long. He lived well. And a relationship with Jesus Christ was foundational to that life well lived.
Hugo’s relationship with Jesus was shaped by a relationship with Rivermont Avenue Baptist Church. He began attending here as an infant less than 20 years after the founding of the congregation when this sanctuary was only 3 years old. At the age of 11 he asked Jesus to be his Lord and was baptized. He was a member here for almost 87 years. His wife, Francis, who preceded him in death in 2003, also grew up in this church. She was baptized here in 1930 at the age of 10. Intertwined for Hugo was his relationship with Jesus, his relationship with Francis, and his relationship with Rivermont Avenue Baptist Church.
The list of ministries here that Hugo participated in is truly remarkable. He taught Sunday school, he served as a deacon. The committees and ministry teams on which he served include: ELC, Finance and Stewardship, Lay Ministries, Personnel, Properties, Drama, Family Night Supper, Greeters, Lord’s Supper, Music, Relief, Tellers, and Ushers. And his skill as a storyteller made him a favorite with the kids in many a Vacation Bible School.
Hugo was almost 40 when I was born. (He joined this church almost 5 years before my father was born!) By the time I first met him he was homebound and unable to get about without a walker. But his mind was still keen and his sense of humor positively wicked. His mockingly amused account of the prudish reaction of a former female church staff member to his very life-like wood carving of a boar hog left me laughing to the point of tears. From almost my first week as pastor I began hearing Hugo stories. And when I met him I understood why. With his passing Hugo Spencer moves from a man to a legend. We’re gonna miss you, Hugo. Yours was a life well lived.
Matthew 25:34 – “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.’”

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