As a teacher in Sonoma County schools for close to a half-century, Vernon C. Spence touched the lives of many young people. But he also passed the torch to the next generation, mentoring newly minted teachers.
Spence, a renaissance man with a life-long passion for learning, died Tuesday from cancer complications in his Santa Rosa home. He was 79.
"He was truly an educator," said Carolina Spence, his wife of 26 years. "Vern was lucky to find a career he did all of his life, and he liked it every day."
"The curiosity he had about everybody and anything was really infectious. People wanted to share with him — that teacher brain," she said.
Spence began his teaching career in the late 1950s at Gravenstein Elementary School. He went on to Herbert Slater and Cook junior high schools, as well as Piner High School.
He retired as bilingual education director for Santa Rosa City Schools, and for the next 13 years was on the faculty of the education department at Dominican University of California.
"He had an amazing amount of energy and a very keen mind and loved his work," said Brien Farrell, the former Santa Rosa city attorney who switched careers a few years ago to become a teacher at Elsie Allen High School.
Spence was Farrell's junior high history teacher in the 1960s. He also was his supervisor four decades later, when Farrell received his teaching credential at Dominican's Ukiah center and they would commute together from Santa Rosa.
"Once or twice a week, he observed in my classrooms. The spring semester of &‘09, he assisted me in improving," said Farrell, who found his first year of teaching especially daunting.
"I would not have made it except for Vern that year," he said. "He was able to impart a vast amount of knowledge and practical tips."
Farrell said that Spence was a formidable teacher at Slater.
"His knowledge of U.S. history was extraordinary. He didn't just use textbooks. He went much deeper than that," Farrell said. "He read biographies and tomes on what we were studying. He was able to breathe life into dry material."
He said Spence invited opportunities to debate topics.
"His classroom management skills were remarkable, meaning that we were all engaged in working hard," he said.
Raised in the town of Weed near Mt. Shasta, Spence was the eldest child of five. His father worked in a laundry of the mill town.
His wife said that Spence wanted to be a teacher from the time he was a little boy, and he saw college as a way to avoid "getting stuck working in the mill."
He went to Chico State College as it was known then, and earned bachelor's and master's degrees in science.
His wife said he enjoyed the classroom and studying so much that "he would have been a professional student had he been able to afford it."
But she said he was drafted into the Army and ended up "in CIA spy school."
He was tight-lipped all his life about those clandestine operations, other than to offer a few snippets. "Occasionally he would say, &‘We landed in Korea and stayed 24 hours and we were out of there,'" she said.
When pressed for details, he'd say, "&‘If I tell you, I'd have to kill you.' No one could pry it out of him."