Mr. Spence was born in 1926 at the original Bolton Village on Rocky Bayou. He graduated from Niceville High School in 1944, where he was center on the school's first football team. He then served in the Navy during and after the end of WWII as medical officer on a merchant marine ship. Upon discharge, he studied pre-engineering, mathematics, physics and chemistry at Tulane, and took advanced courses in probability theory, sampling and statistics at the University of Florida. He went on to study infrared radiation physics, and its applications, at MIT.
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In 1950 he was employed as a civilian engineer by the Air Force at Eglin. He quickly rose to head both the Physical Science Division and Target Development Branch of Eglin's Armament Center. He received numerous commendations from the Commanding General for services performed outside normal duties, such as organizing an annual fish camp seafood cookout for the Air Force Technical Advisory Group, and performing a study on the effects of DDT on local fish populations.
In 1963, Mr. Spence left Eglin to join a large defense contractor, Hayes International Corp., in Birmingham, Ala. In a few years he advanced to become Corporate Director of Plans and Assistant to the Executive Vice President. While at Hayes, he chaired both the Air Targets and also the Chemical and Biological Weapons Sections of the American Ordinance Association (now NDIA), which gave him its Bronze Medallion Award for "selfless devotion of energy and ability." He was also a member of the Birmingham Committee of 100 for five years.
Mr. Spence returned to the local area in 1973 to found Spence Brothers Properties, Inc., a family owned commercial real estate holding company, of which he was president until his passing. Under his leadership nearly a quarter-million square feet of retail and office space was developed, with most still owned by the extended family. He also helped operate Spence Bros. Fish Co. and Spence Bros. Ice Co. during the 1970's and 80's, and owned a trucking company, Southern Express. He continued to work in defense contracting as an active consultant; first for Sperry, and more recently for Honeywell, until 2012. Honeywell recognized his service with a special Leadership Award for "mentorship and vision resulting in over one billion dollars in U.S. Air Force business".
He also dove into community service. Mr. Spence served as President of the Niceville/Valparaiso Chamber of Commerce in 1975 and 1976. While Chamber President, he hatched the idea for the Boggy Bayou Mullet Festival, and was central to its organization and success through the decades to follow. He facilitated the relationship between the 33rd FW Nomads and the Mullet Festival, resulting in substantial fund raising results for the Nomad Association. In 1977, he sponsored more Vietnamese refugees (about 75 families) than any other person on the Emerald Coast, placing most in jobs in the seafood industry
Concurrently with establishing the Mullet Festival, Mr. Spence also devoted considerable attention to economic development, transportation, and environmental issues in Northwest Florida. He served as Chairman of Okaloosa County's Overall Economic Development Plan (OEDP) group. In 1984, he was appointed by Gov. Graham to the Regional 380 Committee, the group that formulated the basis for every comprehensive plan now in place with local governments in Okaloosa and Walton Counties. While on this Committee he spearheaded the effort to fund the first truly comprehensive environmental studies of Choctawhatchee Bay.
He was the driving force behind the establishment of the Mid-Bay Bridge Authority, and served two terms as its Treasurer. He served on the Boards of both the Northwest Florida Water Management District and the Northwest Florida Regional Planning Council. He was appointed by the Secretary of the Interior to the Governing Board of the Gulf Islands National Seashore. In 1989 Gov. Martinez appointed Mr. Spence to the Governor's Commission of the Future of Florida's Environment. He was the sole representative from Northwest Florida, and helped craft the initiative creating the Florida Forever Program which has preserved many thousands of acres of environmentally important Florida habitat.
Mr. Spence continued to be active in the local area until his passing, serving the Air Force Armament Museum Foundation as its Vice President for Development. He was working on promoting and strengthening the Foundation's Engineers for America program, a STEM education initiative in partnership with the Okaloosa County School District. He was also a member of the Okaloosa-Walton Metropolitan Planning Organization and was a member of Okaloosa County's Defense Support Initiative group. He was a member of both the Emerald Coast and the Niceville-Valparaiso Chamber's Military Affairs Committees. He was an active Honorary Commander for the 33rd Wing, and was a member of both the Air Force Association and the NDIA. In 2005 Eglin's Armament Center bestowed the James E. Plew Outstanding Community Ambassador Award on him for many decades of service to Team Eglin.
Mr. Spence was preceded in death by his wife, Ann Ventress Spence; by his parents, Walter S. Spence and Edith Elizabeth Reynolds; and by his brother, Gerald. S. (Buddy) Spence. He is survived by two sons, Walter F. Spence III, and wife, Maxine, and Jerry M. Spence and wife, Karen; and by his honorary son, Nghiep Tran; and also by grandchildren, Victoria Rayborn, Charles Spence, Loren Boyer and Richard Allison. He is further survived by his sister-in-law, Harriet Blilie and nephews, Charles, Jim, and Jon Blilie of Minneapolis; and by many cousins, including Jean Richey, Ferrol Spence, Carole Apfel, Frieda Spence, Jerry Reynolds, and Rebecca Caske. The family would like to thank Mr. Spence's caregivers, Joyce Saunders and Annie Copeland, who gave much of themselves so he could be as comfortable as possible. We also want to thank all who visited during his last days. It meant a lot to him, and to us.
There will be a visitation from 9 to10:30 a.m., on Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2014, at the First United Methodist Church of Niceville with a funeral service beginning at 10:30 a.m., at the church. Interment will follow in Sunset Cemetery.
In lieu of flowers, the family would like contributions to be made to the Air Force Armament Museum Foundation, at 100 Museum Drive. Eglin AFB, FL 32542, for construction of its new education building. Call 651-1808 for more info.
You may express condolences to the family and sign the guestbook at www.heritagegardensfuneralhome.com. Heritage Gardens Funeral Home of Niceville is entrusted with the arrangements.
Heritage Gardens Funeral Home & Cemetery
2201 N Partin Dr
Niceville, FL 32578
Published Online in Northwest Florida Daily News from Jan. 18 to Jan. 19, 2014