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James Houston Spencer was born on July 28, 1895 in Malone, New York, a small town on the border between New York and Quebec, to parents Franklin Talmadge Spencer and Mary Elizabeth Houston. Even without formal training, both of his parents were proficient musicians, his father in trumpet and violin and his mother in piano, which exposed James to the joys of music from a very young age.
Spencer studied piano and cello during his childhood in Malone and later pursued music at the New England Conservatory in Boston, Massachusetts. It was here that Spencer made the decision to give up the cello in favor of the organ and pursue his interest in conducting and composition, studying under Arthur Foote as well as George Whitefield Chadwick. It was also there that he met his wife, a talented soprano, Cornelia Hull Miller, whom he married in June of 1921. At the time, Spencer was working for Ivers and Ponds Company demonstrating sheet music, simultaneously performing as an organist for silent movies.
Later that summer, Spencer received word of a position for music director open at Adrian College and leapt at the opportunity for an interview. In truth, the main reason James Spencer was interested and eventually took the job was due to the magnificent Hutchings-Votey organ (second best in the state of Michigan) that was housed in Downs Hall. This organ was later moved to Herrick Chapel where it resides today. What a stroke of fortune for the college that he accepted the position, as Spencer was steadfastly devoted to his students at the college during the Depression, sometimes running the music department without pay and only his wife on staff with him.
After a little over a decade of dedicated work at Adrian College, Spencer had the honor of participating as a Fellow at the MacDowell Colony. Founded in 1907 by Marion MacDowell, widow of the famous American composer Robert MacDowell on her extensive estate in Peterborough, New Hampshire, the Colony housed several artists specializing in music composition, all forms of visual arts, and various forms of literary media. Members of the Colony were nominated and voted into Membership. James Spencer was a Fellow during the summers of 1934, 1936, and 1937 and was well-liked by Mrs. MacDowell. Spencer was a resident at the same time as Aaron Copland, who was composing a piece with the working title Ballet for Martha, and is known worldwide as Appalachian Spring.
During his first summer at the MacDowell Colony, Spencer came into contact with Carl Sandburg, Pulitzer Prize winning poet and biographer of Lincoln. The two continued a correspondence after departing the colony and a few months later Spencer persuaded him to visit Adrian. The writer actually stayed in Dr. Spencer's home for the extent of his visit.
Hildreth Spencer (daughter to James and Cornelia), who was seven years old at the time, gave a first-hand account of her encounter with Sandburg. Having been warned he was coming and to be on her best behavior, Hildreth burst into the house with a friend to find him standing there in corduroy pants and the most "God awful argyle socks with wild colors." He invited her to sit on his lap and sing with him. She did so and "he proceeded to pick up some stringed instrument" and "started hollering in my ear". "You couldn't help but like him," Hildreth said.
Other major artists Spencer met during his stay at the Colony include poets Louis Untermeyer and Edward Arlington Robinson, composer Amy Beach, and Anita Weschler, who sculpted a scale model of Spencer's head, the bronze casting of which now resides permanently in Spencer Hall.
In 1938, Dr. Spencer was awarded the Mary C. Cromwell Grant, which enabled him to spend the summer travelling in Austria and Germany. This European tour was a rich cultural experience, with many performances to see and the opportunity to personally handle the original autographed scores of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms, as well those of many other famous composers.
Hildreth Spencer reported that her father James Spencer was a storyteller and a charmer. Men found him interesting and women adored him. She even remembers complaining to her mother that her own childhood friends would rather listen to her father play the piano than spend time with her. Hildreth also reported that her father loved to show off at parties and the like, playing little tunes for entertainment on the piano and purposely landing on the wrong note. "He would look over at us and grin, and put his hand up to his mouth as if he'd done it on accident." He also liked to lie on his back on the piano bench with hands above him and proceed to play the piano backwards, hands reversed. "People thought that was fascinating," Hildreth stated. "He got better at it, too, because he practiced it!"
Throughout Hildreth's childhood, her parents made music a part of their home. Between her mother teaching vocal students in their home, her father composing at the Steinway (purchased through a well-played Florida land buying scheme) and the three singing in the car all the way to the old family camp in the Adirondacks, they served as their own source of amusement. Additionally, the entire family attended many performances at the University Musical Society in Ann Arbor, where they saw performances by Sergei Rachmaninoff, Igor Stravinsky, Fritz Kreisler, Frederick Stock, Leopold Stokowsky, Jascha Heifitz, and Vladimir Horowitz, just to name a few.
In between teaching his students, performing on and off campus, and being a father and husband, James Spencer found time to compose numerous works. According to his daughter he would often compose at the piano, occasionally breaking pencils when things weren't flowing smoothly, as if it were the pencil's fault. Much of his composing was done in a small studio built for him on Lake Adrian by Gottlob and Dorothy Ballenger, the parents of one of Dr. Spencer's former students. Spencer nicknamed this studio "The Little House."
After his death, Hildreth and her mother decided to allow the Detroit Public Library to house his compositions in the Burton Historical Collection.
A robust biography of Dr. Spencer's life is outlined in "Bread and Music: A Biography Noting the Life and Times of James Houston Spencer" by Hildreth Houston Spencer. (Adrian, MI: Hildreth Houston Spencer, 2008). Available in the Shipman Library Collection on the Adrian College campus.