MATTHEW LYLE SPENCER
Educator, Administrator, Writer, and Journalist
Dr. Carl Edwin Lindgren
Member, Royal Historical Society (London)
and Fellowship of Catholic Scholars
and Fellowship of Catholic Scholars
Copyright (c) 2000 Carl Edwin Lindgren.
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The following work concerns the life and times of Matthew Lyle Spencer. Spencer, by the 1930s was an internationally known educator and journalist. A noted intellect, Spencer is revered by journalists and scholars worldwide yet remains relatively unknown in his birthplace of Batesville, Mississippi.
Dr. Spencer was born on 7 July 1881 near Batesville. He was the eldest son of Methodist Episcopal minister Rev. Flournoy Poindexter and Alice Eleanor (daughter of Henry Manes of Thomasville, Georgia) Spencer (Cook, 1946). He had two sisters and one brother: Eleanor Elizabeth (1883), Leslie Louise (1887) and Flournoy Poindexter (1885) (Mackenzie, 1966). In regard to lineage, Spencer was able to trace his American ancestry to some 55 years before the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
The American Spencer family, began with Col. Thomas Spencer of Charlotte County, Virginia who wed Eliza Julia Flournoy in the 1740's. Matthew's lineage was through Capt. John Spencer (b. 1745 - son of Thomas, who had four brothers and five sisters), through Captain Thomas Cole Spencer (b. 1774 - son of John, who had two brothers and two sisters) to Matthew's grandfather Matthew Lyle Spencer (1809 - son of Thomas Cole, who had six sisters and three brothers).
Matthew's grandfather was from Lunenburg County, Virginia and was married on 3 April 1838 to Louisa Stokes Neal (Mackenzie, 1966). Although the reasons are not given, Matthew (1809), moved in 1860 to Lealands (Year Book, 1905-06) near Batesville. At this time, Poindexter, Matthew's father, was about three years old. Poindexter spent his childhood in Batesville and at the age of fourteen united with the M. E. Church, South (Yearbook, 1905‑6). Poindexter attended school locally and later studied law and was admitted to the bar. By the 1880's Poindexter was called to preach and in 1884 gave up law to preach the gospel. He attended Vanderbilt and in December, 1886 was admitted to the North Mississippi Conference (Year Book, 1905-06). During the next two years, he preached at Faisonia (1887) and Friars Point (1888). After this period, he left Panola County and began a preaching circuit which carried him to the Mississippi towns of Louisville (1889), Columbus (1890-1891), and Shannon (1892).
In December, 1892, Poindexter was transferred to the North Georgia Conference (Year Book, 1905-06). At the time of Poindexter's move to Georgia, Matthew was nearly twelve years old. For the next three years, Spencer lived with his parents until family conflicts forced him to leave home. According to an account given by Matthew's son, Col. Orton F. Spencer (1991), "he (Matthew) did mention at one time that he started out on his own around the age of fifteen."
THE EARLY 1900's
In 1903, Matthew graduated from Kentucky Wesleyan College with an A.B. degree. Later in 1904, he obtained his A.M. from the same college (Cook, 1946). While completing these degrees, he worked as part-time instructor and later professor (1903-04) in the college's English department. In 1905, Matthew attended Northwestern University where he received an additional A.M. degree. Between 1905-1906 and again in 1909-10, Spencer also served as fellow of English at the University of Chicago, earning his Ph.D. from the university in 1910. Prior, in 1906, Spencer began teaching at Wofford College (Spartanburg, S.C.) as an assistant professor of English (The Bohemian, 1909). While teaching at Wofford, Spencer met and married Ms. Lois Hill, the sister of Mrs. Coleman Bailey Waller of Spartanburg.
Since the placing of its cornerstone in 1851, Wofford has celebrated many unforgettable occasions. Some have brought tears of disappointment. Others, such as the graduation of Samuel Dibble (Wofford's first graduate) and the 1948 football record have been times for festivity. One similarly heartwarming event occurred in mid-December, 1908. At a time when final exams should have been foremost in student's minds, the wedding of Miss Lois Hill and Professor Matthew Lyle Spencer mistily enveloped the campus in the enchantment of old‑fashioned wintertime romance.
The wedding announcement, which first appeared in the Holiday issue of the Wofford College Journal was simple and straightforward (Professor Spencer, 1908):
Mr. and Mrs. Coleman Bailey Waller request the pleasure of your company at the wedding reception of their sister Lois Hill and Mr. Matthew Lyle Spencer on Tuesday, the twenty‑second of December from half after five until after six o'clock. Four hundred and sixty-four North Church Street Spartanburg, South Carolina.
Miss Hill was also a recent arrival to Spartanburg, having previously resided in Anderson. According to available records, she was an outgoing young lady who had, in a relatively short time made many friends. How Matthew met Lois is uncertain as from all indications he was the consummate professor: soft-spoken, proper, and reserved.
The Wedding Ceremony
The festive atmosphere of the Waller household contrasted with the dismal December weather. Since dawn, the sky had remained dark and menacing and as the evening wedding hour approached, a gentle rain continued to fall. Indoors however, the cheerful, radiantly lit home was magnificently decorated from front entrance hall to back doorstep. The lower floor consisted of a differing color scheme for each room, while the front parlor where the wedding was to occur was festooned in bridal white and green. The room was also decked with mistletoe, smilax, and twinkling incandescent lights. The family's grand piano was devoid of ornamentation except for a single vase of pristine white carnations.
The ceremony was to be an intimate one, attended only by immediate friends and family members and officiated by Miss Hill's former pastor, Reverend Melvin B. Kelley. As the clock struck 5:00, the wedding march began with the entrance of four ribbon bearers. According to the Spartanburg Herald, Miss Lucy Yancey of Atlanta, the bride's only bridesmaid, descended the staircase and was escorted to the altar by Mr. D. T. Herndon of Auburn, Alabama. Next, the bride entered with her sister and maid of honor, Miss Martha Hill. At the altar, they were met by the groom and Matthew's brother and best man, Mr. F. P. Spencer of Atlanta, Georgia.
The bride, a vision of beauty, "wore a beautiful gown of blush pink made empire. ... Her costume was completed with a magnificent bouquet of pink enchantress carnations. The bride ... was a perfect picture in her bridal robe, wearing an exquisite directoire creation of white ... satin."
Immediately following the ceremony a large number of friends, colleagues, and well‑wishers gathered in the Waller home to attend an elegant reception held in the couple's honor. Greeting the guests were Mrs. J. Choice Evans, Mrs. Robert Chapman, Mrs. Lewis P. Walker, Mrs. Gabriel Cannon, Mrs. Walter S. Montgomery, Mrs. W. A. Rogers, and Mrs. A. M. DuPre. Guests were invited to partake of a buffet course served in the pink and silver decorated dining room. Among the hostesses were Ella Brown, Elizabeth Copeland, Curtis Cannon, Eoline Lignon, and Mrs. H. N. Snyder.
After the reception, the newly married couple departed to an automobile which had been secretly parked at the rear of the Waller's home for what they assumed would be an uneventful departure to Florida. This, however, did not prove to be the case.
The Planned Abduction
Most of the college's students were preparing for their next day's final examinations, and for those who had already completed their tests, the task of packing for the Christmas holidays was foremost in their minds. A few were strolling the streets hoping to purchase that last Christmas gift for family and loved ones. Others had gathered at the train depot to bid farewell to the Spencers as they departed for their Florida honeymoon.
The next morning's front page headlines, however, recounted a different story: one of plots, attempted abduction, and a dangerous automobile chase, and one which was later refuted by the editor of the Wofford College Journal as being fanciful and an attempt to "fill up space."
According to the Wednesday, December 23rd edition of the local paper:
BRIDAL PARTY GIVES BOYS THE "SLIP"
An exciting ride in a big touring automobile over rough country, after a drenching rain and through troughs of deep mud which at times proved almost impassible, saved from abduction yesterday Professor M. L. Spencer, instructor in English at Wofford College, who was married at 5:30 o'clock yesterday afternoon to Miss Lois Hill of this city.
According to the local paper, shortly before reaching their automobile, the couple and friends of the bridal party were engaged in a scuffle with students who were trying to block
Professor Spencer from entering the car. Apparently, their intention was to kidnap the groom and prevent him from arriving at the train station in time to board the 8:10 Columbia and Asheville train. The plan was to overtake the bridal party, forcibly remove Spencer and detain him just long enough to miss his train. At the same time however, a counterplot was being devised by some of Spencer's friends. In anticipation of this abduction, one of the best and fastest cars in the community was secretly hidden at the back of the Waller home. As conspirators awaited the honeymooners at the front door, the Spencers slipped out the back. When the well wishers, friends, and the plotting students learned of the deception, they endeavored to run around the back only to be thwarted by a guard who detained them until the car sped away. The antics continued as some of the students sped to the depot, the Junction, and finally the East Spartanburg platform in hopes of still catching up with Professor Spencer. The plot however, was foiled because Spencer hid in the baggage compartment until after the train departed the East Spartanburg stop.
Whether or not the abduction plan actually occurred is still disputed and in most cases a doubted occurrence. Regardless of the actual happenings, the local paper had carried the story which, through some unexplained means, was printed by the Associated Press in nearly every newspaper in the state. Today, it is generally believed that a simple and fun-loving prank, devised by a few students had been blown totally out of proportion by the news media.
A final note on the newlyweds was carried by the "Campus Notes" of the Wofford College Journal which stated that upon their return from their honeymoon the Spencers "now occupy the cottage that Dr. Cooke vacated, and are at home to their friends." The Journal extended to them well wishes and the sincere hope for long life and continued happiness.
As stated, in 1910, he received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago (Cattell, 1942). Due in part to the completion of his doctorate and his excellent academic teaching record, Spencer was promoted to full professorship at Woman's College in Alabama. According to an excerpt in the Wofford College Journal (Local Department, 1910):
Those boys who were under Prof. M. L. Spencer, who was of the English department here for two years, are glad to know that he is now head of the English department at the Woman's College of Alabama, at Montgomery. ...
JOURNALISM IN WASHINGTON
Spencer left Woman's College in 1911 to assume a position as English professor at Lawrence College (Appleton, Wis.). He stayed at this position for seven years during which time he also served as reporter and copy reader (1913, 1917-18) for the Milwaukee Journal (Cook, 1946).
According to Emory Magazine, "his purpose [both as writer and professor] was to write a trilogy to separate the teaching of journalism into news writings, copy and editorial writing" (Spencer, 1970). In 1917, shortly before leaving the college, Spencer became chief editor of the Milwaukee Journal. This position was short-lived as Spencer felt it his duty, as war raged in Europe, to enlist in the military
During the later part of the First World War (1918), Spencer became a captain in military intelligence for the United States Army. After the war, Lyle maintained his Army ties and in 1929 was appointed lieutenant colonel, in the special reserves (Cattell, 1941). He retained this rank until his retirement some ten years later.
In September, 1919 Spencer resumed teaching, accepting a position as Director of the School of Journalism at the University of Washington. A year later, Spencer married Helen McNaughton, the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Alexander McNaughton. Lyle and Helen went on to raise a family which consisted of three children: Orton Flournoy, Judson and Helen (another son, Lyle Manly Spencer was from a previous marriage to Miss Hill). His first marriage had ended, rather bitterly, some years before. The reasons however, remain a mystery as Spencer refused to discuss, even privately, his early life.
On 11 January 1926, Spencer was appointed dean of the school of journalism. In September the following year, Spencer accepted the position as president of the university.
According to Charles M. Gates' book, The First Century at the University of Washington, the political climate at the university (under Governor Hartley's administration) became so intolerable that the then president of the university, Dr. Suzzallo was forced to resign.
The presidency was then passed to Dr. Spencer, former dean of the university's college of journalism. Faculty and staff favored the new administration since more attention was given to salary increases and promotion opportunities.
Spencer supported the efforts of the administration in providing a higher level in scholarship and standards. During his inaugural address he stated, "When the Universities in any country cease to be in close touch with the social life and institutions of the people ... their days of influence are numbered."
Spencer also advocated admission requirements be stiffened and that elective and so-called "sop-courses" be dropped. He felt arts and sciences should be the heart of higher education thereby greatly diminishing the role of technical and vocational training.
After a short time, opposition to Spencer's programs began to grow. One of the first groups to express dissatisfaction was the Seattle High School Teacher's League. The league felt that the university and especially the president were being biased toward the graduate school, and were preventing new students from enrolling. The university's policy, according to League members, served to be discriminatory toward students who possessed "merely average ability" (Gates, 1961).
In 1932, a new governor was elected by the state of Washington. The year 1932 also marked an important change in university administrative autonomy and student accessibility. With the new direction of state government and university procedure, it became evident that there must be changes on the highest level of the university's administration. For these, and other reasons, Spencer tended his resignation as president of the university.
After leaving the University of Washington in April 1933, Dr. Spencer traveled to the University of Chicago where he taught one year. In 1934 Spencer organized the school of journalism at Syracuse University, believing journalism was a specialized form of English deserving its own curriculum. That same year, he was appointed the university's first dean of the school of journalism. During this period Spencer wrote several major journalism textbooks, including News Writing and Editorial Writing
Later, while on leave, Spencer traveled to Egypt in 1936 and again in 1945 becoming visiting professor at American University in Egypt (The Jaques Cattell Press, 1964). It was during his first five month visit, that Spencer founded the university's department of journalism (Spencer, 1970).
During the war years Spencer also established the War Service College at Syracuse University. The college provided hard core courses in math, science and language for men about to enter military service. It was also during this time that he was instrumental in establishing propaganda as a specialized journalistic form.
Before retiring from Syracuse in 1951 as dean emeritus, Dr. Spencer had also lectured at Oriental Culture Summer College in Tokyo (1940), received the Columbia Scholastic Press Association's Gold Medal (1946), and Syracuse University's Distinguished Service Medal (The Jaques Cattell Press, 1964). He also possessed honorary doctorates from Northwestern University (1928), College of Puget Sound (1932), Kentucky Wesleyan College (1942), and Syracuse University (1951). Upon retirement, Dr. Spencer moved to Clearwater, Florida where he later died on 10 February 1969 at the age of 87 (Kritsberg, 1990; Foard, 1990).
During his professional career, Spencer authored several academic works including: William Gilmore Simms's The Yemassee (editor), Corpus Christi Pageants in England, Practical English Punctuation, News Writing, and Editorial Writing. Spencer was also active in various societies including: the American Association of Schools and Journalism Departments, Tau Kappa Alpha, Sigma Delta Chi, Alpha Gamma Delta, Phi Beta Kappa (April 24, 1931), Rotary Club (Cook, 1946), Sons of the American Revolution, Wisconsin Academy of Science, Arts and Letters, and Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts (Eng.) (Mackenzie, 1966).
Matthew Lyle Spencer was a man of strong convictions, who at times was perceived as egotism and arrogance. Among students, however, Spencer was well-loved and admired. In his long teaching and administrative career, Spencer instilled ethical and moral qualities which would follow his students into their professional careers. Spencer condemned the "editorial writer who expects salary or recognition in return for daily utterances of silken sayings advocating measures he thinks his employer wants." "Prostitution of editorial brains," according to Spencer, "is the greatest curse of the newspaper profession" (Obituary, 1969). Known as the "Father of Television Journalism," many early television journalists either attended Spencer's classes or read and admired his works.
The Bohemian. (1909). Published by the Senior Class - Wofford College, Richmond: Everett Waddey Co., 9 & 10.
Cattell, J. M., Cattell, J. and Ross, E. E. (1941). Matthew Lyle Spencer. Leaders in Education. New York: The Science Press.
Cattell, J. (Editor) (1942). Matthew Lyle Spencer. Directory of American Scholars. Lancaster: The Science Press.
Cook, R. C., et al. (1946). Matthew Lyle Spencer. Who's Who in American Education. Nashville: Who's Who in American Education, Inc.
Foard, D. W. (1990). Phi Beta Kappa Society (letter), 30 November.
Gates Charles M. (1961). The First Century at the University of Washington - 1861-1961. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
Hill-Spencer. (1908). The Spartanburg Herald, 23 December: 2.
The Jaques Cattell Press. (1964). Matthew Lyle Spencer. Directory of American Scholars. New York: R. R. Bowker Company
Kritsberg, D. (1990). Office of Human Resources, Syracuse University (reply letter), 3 December.
Local Department. (October 1910). Wofford College Journal. Spartanburg: The Calhoun, Carlisle and Preston Literary Societies, 45.
Mackenzie, George N. (1966). Colonial Families of the United States of America. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 425‑27.
Obituary Section. (1969). M. Lyle Spencer Educator, Dead. The New York Times, 12 February:39, cols. 2 & 3.
Professor Spencer to be Married. (1908). Wofford College Journal (Holiday Number), 155.
Spencer. (1970). Emory Magazine, Emory University, November-December:77.
Spencer, Orton F. (1991). Private correspondence to author, April 20.
Yearbook. (1905-06). Methodist-Episcopal Records.
I would like to thank Herbert Hucks, Jr., Archivist of the Sandor Teszler Library at Wofford College (Spartanburg, S.C.) for the assistance and concern he showed during the writing of this booklet.
Much of the research contained in this booklet is from articles written by the author over the past three years for the Panola Story, Le Despencer, and American National Biography. In some cases, statements are taken verbatim from the aforementioned articles. Spencer's 1908 wedding is from the author's article "The Spencer-Hill Wedding: a Time of Joy," which appeared in the Spring 1992 issue of Wofford Today.