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The Master of the Plan

The Spencers
Ralph and Vaneta Spencer

Ralph Spencer wrote a paper several years ago that discussed the way he looks at life's big picture. The title is self explanatory - "Everything Matters."

Everything does matter to Spencer, the well-known architect and new Huntsville resident who just finished designing the new Master Plan for Sam Houston State University that will take the institution through the next 10 years of its development.

Just about every experience he has ever been through matters to him. Just about everything that happens on a daily basis in life also matters and should matter to everyone, he says.

What did matter to Sam Houston State and its current president, B. K. Marks, was getting Spencer to come out of his 1989 retirement and design the new master plan. Spencer designed the previous plan in 1980 that took the university to the year 2000.

"It was hard for us to think in terms of working with a different campus master planner, one who would have to start from the beginning to know the University," said Marks. "Ralph knew the personality and infrastructure of the University well.

"Frankly, we began to contrive ways of coaxing him out of retirement on a temporary basis, to update the campus master plan one more time. To shorten the story, we were successful in our attempts."

Not only did Sam Houston State benefit from the project, Spencer and his wife of two years, Vaneta, did as well. After getting to know the ins and outs of Huntsville, they decided it was the perfect place to settle down and enjoy retirement.

The couple now occupies a home in the Elkins Lake subdivision, which gives a spectacular view of the golf course.

"The social environment here is so good," Spencer said. "People are so nice and they are trusting. When you live in a city like I have most of my life, things don't happen much. When you meet a guy here on the golf course, he's all of the sudden your buddy. Huntsville is a pretty precious place in my mind."

Vaneta agrees.

"For it to be no larger than it is, it has so many community activities," she said. "It has just as much as what a big city has, maybe even more. Sometimes big cities lose that community atmosphere."

Spencer's success over the years brought him to Huntsville, but not before struggling through some hard times of his own.

Growing up during the Depression in tiny Breckenridge, Texas, was not always easy for him, who will soon turn 75. Times were tough on him and his family.

He remembers when he had to take his family's cow to school a couple days a week. His father would tell him to tie the cow to a tree in the middle of a pasture on his way to school to let it graze until he was dismissed from his classes.

Kids would tease the young Spencer for having a pet cow. The only way he could stop the teasing was to get physical. Like many other things he has done in his life, it worked.

While only 17-years-old, he, along with three of his close friends, joined the Navy. It was World War II and many young men were dropping out of school to help in the war cause.

His duty took him to aircraft carriers in the combat-busy Pacific. There, he says, he began to understand that even the simplest things really do matter.

"I worked down in the bowels of the ship, in the hottest place you can find in the South Pacific where it was about 120 degrees outside," Spencer said.

"I learned then that cool air matters and that heat rash matters."

After seeing little war action, his duty was up and in 1946 he enrolled at Tarleton State University in Stephenville, which at the time was a junior college. After finishing his work there, he went on to Texas Tech, where he eventually graduated.

Spencer stayed in Lubbock for 20 years and then moved to Austin where he continued his architectural practice and taught classes at the University of Texas-Austin.

After 30 years of living in Austin, his first wife of 50 years passed away five years ago. He decided he would do some traveling and eventually rekindled his friendship with Vaneta, whom he met while at Tarleton State. Vaneta's husband of 25 years passed away some years back. The two decided to get married.

Not much was driving his life, Spencer says, until Sam Houston State came calling for his services on the new Master Plan. The decision was not a difficult one for Spencer.

"When they came back after me to get me to do this, it was a great honor," he said. "These were benchmark people and that (designing the 1980 Master Plan) was a benchmark event in my life.

"Here, they were giving me the chance to do the same thing again. At my age, people don't come around looking for old ducks like me. I felt like a celebrity. All of the sudden, somebody wanted me and that was good."

Spencer said Sam Houston State University provided a good means to get back to the work he loves.

"Sam Houston State is interesting," he said. "It's one of those things that stimulates and excites a planner. It has a quality that you don't find often on college campuses."

The experience of putting together another plan for Sam Houston State has been just the medicine for Spencer, who has two sons - Ralph and Richard - along with five grandsons.

"I'm going to be 75-years-old pretty soon," he said. "You have to work hard at being excited the older you get. You can't just get on a horse and take off every morning."

Though he admits he is glad he has finally finished the project, he is proud of the time and effort he spent improving the university he has grown to adore. He says the experience is one of the most important ones in his life. Not too shabby considering things he has accomplished.

"Time will have to tell if I've done a good job," he said. "I like what I did and I feel good about what I did. This has been something really good for me. I like myself better now."

And to him, that really does matter.

- END -

SHSU Media Contact: Brandon Autrey
August 9, 2001
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