Tempe - Like a wide, deep river, its calm, glassy surface reflecting all it sees, its cool, dark waters nourishing all it touches, and its silent powers sculpting a path for others to follow, Daniel David Spencer lived his life on Earth. The beloved teacher and longtime Tempe resident passed away at his home on July 27, 2020 from pancreatic cancer. He was 76.
David is survived by his wife, Susan Soroka; daughter, Jessica Spencer and her partner, Rob Darmour of Portland, OR; and two older sisters, Danny Patterick of Grand Junction, CO; and Gloria Gapter of Apache Junction, AZ, and many nieces and nephews.
"He slipped away peacefully, with some of his favorite Dead songs playing quietly in the background, while we were all momentarily preoccupied with morning rituals," said his daughter, Jessica. "Which felt very fitting somehow. My Dad was always about ritual and not being the center of attention, even in death."
The man most knew as "Spencer" was born April 1, 1944, in Pueblo, CO, to parents Lois Goehring and Daniel Goodall. His father died in a mining accident a week later. His mother later married Harold Spencer, who adopted Spencer and his sister Danny. The new family also included stepsister Gloria and soon grew with the birth of another daughter, Susan.
Spencer spent most of his youth in Grand Junction, CO. He earned an undergraduate degree in education from Western Colorado University. Upon graduation, Spencer left the cold of Colorado for the warmth of the Valley to be hired by the Tempe Elementary School District where he began his teaching career at Laird School in 1966. He went on to earn a master's degree in education from Arizona State University in 1970.
In 1968, he was drafted by the US Army and served honorably in Vietnam as a chaplain's assistant, although he was a firm opponent of the war. After Vietnam, Spencer returned to Tempe and teaching. Over the next 30 years he educated children at multiple schools in Tempe. Later, he moved on to ASU, where he spent a decade educating pre-service teachers in the school's Elementary Ed. Program.
Spencer had room in his heart for more than teaching. In 1976, he met and fell in love with fellow teacher Susan Soroka at Aguilar Elementary. They shared a love of teaching and spent many evenings in conversation about children and learning. In May 1981, Spencer and Susan were married in a backyard ceremony at their Tempe home. Jessica was born in November of that year. He was a proud papa, always in love with his Jess, whom he would say inherited his way of seeing the world.
He had many defining characteristics. He loved music, especially the Grateful Dead, art, and photography. He enjoyed watching sports, particularly basketball, an activity he shared with his daughter. He was a man of daily ritual: waking early to run, read the Arizona Republic, do the crossword, and work in the yard. He was known around the neighborhood for having a "meticulous yard," devoting hours daily to raking, which he considered a form of Zen meditation. Spencer cherished deep friendships with his "spiritual brothers," his chosen family. Over the last 20 years he exchanged daily letters with a best friend in Colorado. He had serious concerns about any kind of injustice, war and oppression. And he occasionally suffered from depression.
Spencer was an icon in Tempe. For 28 years, he drove a yellow 1972 Ford Ranger adorned with Steal Your Face, Dancing Bears, and Peace sign stickers. It was instantly recognizable. He had an earring and a ponytail when it was not considered conventional for men to do so. It was impossible to go to the grocery store without running into a former student, parent, or colleague.
Spencer's forte was how he interacted with and cared about people, young and old, inside a classroom or not. It began with humbleness. He always had a listening ear for others. He made everyone he met feel special and wanted. Spencer made such strong connections that many students kept in touch long after school ended. He'd get frequent updates on their lives. He'd get invited to graduations and weddings, even asked to preside over ceremonies, becoming an ordained minister in order to do so.
In 2004, Spencer was asked to describe his approach to teaching. "I wouldn't be able to teach to my students if I didn't know my students," he said. "And the only way to know them is to connect with them at some level either academically or emotionally. There has to be a connection before learning can take place. My connection with my students is one of knowing them, understanding them and, probably most important, accepting them for who they are and what they do."
After retirement, Spencer and Susan volunteered at Ryan House, a Hospice of the Valley facility providing palliative and respite care for children and their families. Spencer did what he does best: connect with the kids as they are- playing music, using movement, talking, just being there.
Spencer's family thanks everyone for their on-going love and support. They have no immediate plans for a public service due to the COVID-19 pandemic but intend to hold a celebration of his life once it's safer for public gatherings. Donations can be made in Spencer's name to Hospice of the Valley, hov.org
. Additionally, there is a public Facebook group, "Former Students of David Spencer." All are welcome to read or share memories.
Spencer truly reflected all he saw and experienced. There is no question that his attention nourished countless people. And the path he carved throughout his life will forever serve as a way forward to something better.
"He is a blessed man and touched so many, many lives," a former student wrote. "I am who I am because of his influence at an early age. I needed him in my life and I am ever so grateful to have been nurtured by him those years and beyond. Please tell him to rest well. His job is done, was superior, and he is so loved."