Thomas Morris Spencer, Sr., higher education pioneer and college administrator, was born on November 30, 1916, in Nolan County, Texas. He was the son of Thomas Monroe Spencer and Della Mae (Whitley) Spencer. His father was section foreman for the Santa Fe Railway Company and later a railroad workers’ union leader. When Spencer was young, his father was beaten nearly to death by railroad henchmen and suffered poor health for the rest of his life as a result. After living in several locations in Central Texas while growing up, Spencer, at age sixteen, graduated from Denton High School. Despite being told by his high school English teacher that he would not amount to anything, Spencer attended Sam Houston State Teachers College (present-day Sam Houston State University) and worked his way through college as a night custodian at Memorial Hospital in Huntsville, Texas. At school he was active in sports and a number of organizations, including football, debate club, press club, and Pi Kappa Delta. He ultimately earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Sam Houston State.
While in college, Spencer met Betty Rachel Bradham from Huntsville. They married on November 28, 1936; they had five children. Spencer’s first job was as a high school principal in Holland, Texas, from 1935 to 1937. He subsequently served as a superintendent of schools in Thrall (1937–41), Llano (1941–42), and Cypress-Fairbanks (1943–47). He also served as deputy state superintendent for Texas from 1942 to 1943. While serving at Cypress-Fairbanks, Spencer completed the first doctor of education degree from the University of Houston in 1947. His dissertation on state systems of junior college education became a blueprint for states to create educational systems and institutions for people unserved by public higher education at the time (see Junior-College Movement).
In 1947 Blinn College selected Spencer as president. Blinn was in a significant financial crisis, one that endangered the very future of the school. Upon Spencer’s arrival, the school’s assets included the buildings (which were badly in disrepair) and $50 cash in the bank. This fiscal crisis was dire enough that the Southern Association of Secondary Schools and Colleges deferred a decision on Blinn’s accreditation in 1947 because it “question[ed] the financial ability of Blinn College to continue operation on its present level.” After working hard to improve facilities, academic offerings, and the credentials of its staff, Blinn received full accreditation in 1950 from the Southern Association.
Spencer served twenty-five years as the president of the Texas Public Junior College Association (see Texas Association of Community Colleges) and also served a term as the president of the Association of Texas Colleges and Universities. In 1951 he was credited with getting equitable funding for junior colleges in Texas, and he participated in the White House Conference on Education in 1955. Often credited as the “father of the community college movement in Texas,” Spencer was often called “Mr. Junior College” by colleagues.
Spencer left Blinn to become the founding president of South Plains College in Levelland in 1957. He was the first employee of South Plains College and literally built the college from the ground up; he supervised initial construction and hired the first faculty. In 1961 Spencer left Levelland to be the founding president of an even larger new institution, San Jacinto College in Pasadena, Texas. Once again, he was the first employee of the institution. By the early 1980s Spencer became chancellor of the three campuses of San Jacinto College in the Houston area, and enrollment had reached 20,000 students.
In 1981 Spencer published The Legislative Process, Texas-Style, a careful description of the unique way legislators in Texas approach the process of legislation. He drew on his fifty years of experience with the Texas legislature in composing the work. At the time, his book was one of the first works on the subject. Spencer retired from San Jacinto College in 1983.
Thomas Morris Spencer, Sr., at the age of sixty-eight, passed away on July 18, 1985, in Brenham, Texas. He was buried in Levelland Municipal Cemetery in Levelland, Texas. A daughter, Vera Sue, predeceased him. Members of his family carried on the legacy of school administration, and his son, Thomas Jr., helped establish community colleges in Arkansas. Spencer received many awards during his lifetime. He was honored with the Mirabeau B. Lamar Award for Outstanding Service to Higher Education in Texas from the Association of Texas Colleges and Universities posthumously in 1986. He was inducted into the Blinn College Hall of Honor in 2012. Ultimately, Spencer left a legacy as a major proponent of and catalyst for community colleges for the underserved in Texas.