A new endowed scholarship honoring former Ottawa resident Dr. Lewis V. Spencer has been established at Ottawa University by Dr. Spencer’s family, friends and former students. The scholarship will help support students at the Ottawa campus in physics, math, and engineering.
Spencer taught physics and math at OU between 1957 and 1969 while simultaneously carrying out research for the U.S. National Bureau of Standards (now National Institute of Standards and Technology) in Washington, D.C.
A leading international authority on fallout penetration and shielding from nuclear disasters, he was one of only four Americans working in a NATO scientific party focused on fallout protection in Paris in 1959. His seminal work and methods for calculating radiation penetration are still used internationally in fields ranging from physics to medicine to the design of nuclear submarines.
Spencer received many honors recognizing his contributions to civil defense and radiation shielding, including the first Gray Medal in Tokyo from the International Commission of Radiation Units and Measurements in 1969. He also received multiple awards from the U.S. Department of Commerce as well as the Ottawa Chamber of Commerce, and was named a Distinguished Jayhawker in 1964 by Kansas Gov. John Anderson.
While at OU, Dr. Spencer worked with Dr. W.D. Bemmels to build the math and physics departments to nationally recognized levels, with a steady stream of former students successfully entering physics and related fields.
He and his wife, Elizabeth (former USD 290 school board president), teamed to help improve the math curricula of the Ottawa school system. In addition to his professional life, Spencer was an active member of First Baptist Church, where he was involved in Christian education policy and sang in the choir. He also served on the American Baptist Convention’s Board of Education and Publication in the 1960s.
In his early life, however, these achievements seemed unlikely when at the age of 12, Spencer was hit by a train while delivering newspapers, losing his dominant right arm and most of his right leg. If anything, this setback established his fierce determination to overcome, succeed, and then to help lift others up.
As a high school student, Spencer developed a method of one-handed touch typing that allowed him to type nearly 100 error-free words per minute, then taught others how to do it. He worked with handicapped World War II veterans, teaching them basic daily life skills like how to tie shoes or a tie with one hand.
“He drove himself to become dexterous with his left hand by practicing endless hours of croquet, ping-pong, and with those paddles with a rubber ball attached,” Carl Spencer, son of Lewis, said. “He would nearly always win croquet, coming from behind to alternately knock your ball forward, put his through a wicket with his extra shot, then knocking your ball again all the way around. And I still clearly remember the day I finally beat him in a game of ping-pong, which he played all the time with my siblings and me.”
The son said his father never considered himself handicapped.
“Dad explained his approach to me as ‘Here I am. There is where I want to go. Now all I have to do is figure out how to get from here to there,’” the son said. “Despite his very significant accomplishments, Dad was always a very humble man. I think he would be a little embarrassed having a scholarship named after him, but I have no doubt he would enthusiastically endorse helping yet another student to understand the wonders of the physical world and how to apply them for the benefit of others.”
For information about how to become a part of “The Lewis V. Spencer Scholarship for Outstanding STEM Performance,” contact Nori Hale at OU (785) 248-2336 or email at email@example.com.