CWRU student and Vietnam veteran William Spencer pursues his third master’s degree at age 78

William Spencer

Spencer to be recognized for his military service during on-campus Veterans Day ceremony

If there’s one thing you can’t miss at the Cleveland Public Library, it’s a tour by William Spencer. At least, that’s according to several Tripadvisor reviews that mention Spencer by name, strongly urging others to seek out his wealth of knowledge and passion for the library where he’s worked for nearly two decades.

At 78 years old, Spencer has no plans of slowing down. A lifelong learner surrounded by knowledge-seekers, Spencer is working on his third master’s degree—one in bioethics and medical humanities from Case Western Reserve University. 

But all of that—the years at the library and educational pursuits—came after a completely different life in his early adulthood. 

At age 19, Spencer enlisted in the Marine Corps and went on to serve for 12 years—service that included deployment during the Vietnam War.

To honor his years in the Armed Forces, Spencer will be presented with a Quilt of Valor ahead of Veterans Day (Nov. 11) during an on-campus breakfast at CWRU Friday morning. These special quilts, given by the Quilt of Valor Foundation, are handmade for service and military members who have experienced war to thank them for their sacrifices.

A colleague at the Cleveland Public Library nominated Spencer to receive this recognition. The gesture left Spencer speechless.

“I’m not sure [humans] have ever achieved the ability to put those types of feelings into words,” Spencer said.

In his view, the honor is especially poignant given how many Vietnam War veterans were not received warmly when they returned home—a product of the sentiment some Americans held in regard to the war.

A life of service

Spencer’s initial enlistment with the Marine Corps lasted four years, during which time he played in two Marine Corps bands (flute, piccolo, bass drum and cymbals) and held duty with the prestigious Marine Barracks. He turned 21 during this time in Vietnam.

Thereafter, he briefly left the military to work as a paper sales representative, but returned to the Marine Corps for officer candidate school in 1971. Upon completion, he was commissioned a second lieutenant and soon after was promoted to first lieutenant.

His service took him around the world, from Camp Pendleton to a short tour in Alaska and cruises in the North Atlantic, Mediterranean and Caribbean. He resigned commission in 1978, with three years served as a captain. 

After completing his military service, he became a corporate recruiter for Electronic Data Systems Corporation and a human resources manager at Motorola. But his passion for knowledge only grew from there.

Continuing education

Spencer began working at the Cleveland Public Library to fulfill a volunteer service requirement for residents of governmental housing. Yet after seven months, he was offered a permanent job—and has become a central figure at the institution. In addition to giving tours of the main library building downtown, he has worked at all 27 branches of the library system. He is a trusted source on tours of the main campus, having worked in every branch of the building—from fine arts to science and technology to lending.

“I have more than a notion of how all these departments work together in collaboration to make this the third-largest public research library in the country,” he said.

While there, Spencer has made it his mission to expand his own knowledge—a pursuit backed by the discipline the military instilled in him. For two years, he woke up before sunrise every morning to drive to Pittsburgh, where he was earning a master’s degree in library information science from the University of Pittsburgh. He finished that degree in June 2015, and by August of that same year, he had already begun another master’s program, this time a little closer to home.

He completed a master’s degree in humanities from John Carroll University in four years. 

Earning his third master’s degree, especially at Case Western Reserve, felt natural. As a medical librarian by training, the bioethics and medical humanities program appealed to him, and he was intrigued by the university’s connection to Willard Gaylin, who earned his medical degree from Western Reserve University in 1951 before co-founding the Hastings Center with Daniel Callahan.

But the connection also is personal for Spencer, whose grandmother was a graduate of the university.

Though he is much older than his classmates, Spencer is not shy in raising his hand to contribute his thoughts to class discussions. He admits, however, that he is often the one holding up class dismissal with questions for the instructor as his peers are itching to get home after their classes that can end as late as 8 p.m.

“I benefit from the younger students in the class and hopefully, I bring something to the table with my experience,” he said.

He expects to complete his program in 2015. And then? Spencer is eyeing a PhD with hopes of developing future policies—all in the name of service.

“I’ve had the titles. Titles come and go. Credentials stick with you,” he said. “[They were not] given to me—I earned them. [And they’re] not to keep to myself, but to utilize for the benefit of others. That is my whole objective in living: that I will leave a legacy—not necessarily with my name on it—but that what I’ve tried to do sticks with someone.”