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2012 Lifetime Achievement in Business: Robert Spence

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Robert Spence’s career in education starts and ends with Evangel University.

Spence’s tenure at Evangel began in 1974, when he signed a five year agreement with the school. Before that, he spent 20 years as an Assemblies of God pastor.

While influential men – such as the Rev. Ralph M. Riggs and J. Robert Ashcroft – preceded him, Spence’s presence has helped the school double enrollment to more than 2,000, earn university status, add nine master’s degrees and construct more than a dozen campus buildings.

Spence has been at the helm for 38 years of the school’s 59-year history. He’s set a 2014 retirement, but not before he leads Evangel into a consolidation with Central Bible College and the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary – a monumental task that is now under review by the North Central Association’s Higher Learning Commission.

“I want that in the very best order to make it easy for the next administration to move it forward,” Spence says of his role as steering committee chairman for the consolidation, which is shaping up to be his last mark on campus.

Spence considers his most significant feat to be facilitating the plans to concurrently develop Evangel physically and academically.

“If there is anything I’d like to be known as and for, it’s empowering people and encouraging people to work together and accomplish things that none of us could do by ourselves,” he says.

Evidence of this work was the school’s 12-year, $50 million fundraising campaign that essentially completed a campus transformation from aging U.S. Army barracks. Development was bookended by construction of Zimmerman Hall, the first permanent academic building, in 1997 to Riggs Hall, the first administrative building, completed in 2009.

Before the campus development, Spence says starting a football program in 1977 really became the catalyst for enrollment growth. “We went from 1,100 in the fall of 1976, and the next fall with the addition of football, it went up to 1,200,” he recalls with ease, noting roughly 1,600 students were on campus by 1979. “With the growth was the expansion of our physical facilities, the addition of new residence halls.”

Today, he’s approachable to students – “Hi, President Spence,” says a young girl passing by in the hallway – and he’s leading the charge to add 1,000 more students with the consolidation on the 80-acre North Glenstone Avenue campus.

During an interview in his immaculately clean and organized second-floor Riggs Hall office suite, the 76-year-old Spence reflects on various stages and elements of his career.
On his fingerprint
“We were not just building buildings, we were really strengthening our academic programs, even to the point where, with the Higher Learning Commission, we were able to move into the (Academic Quality Improvement Program). I look on that with deep gratitude for this reason: To do that meant having to facilitate a lot of people working together.”

On his family
“My wife [Anne] has played a vital role in everything we’ve done here. She’s been a vital part in our volunteer and auxiliary agencies and organizations, and very active in those support groups that have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for scholarships and special projects. The ladies auxiliary has raised more than $1 million through the years. I couldn’t be at this point where I am had it not been for her support and her encouragement and involvement. It’s been the same with our family, our sons and their wives. Some people have a successful career and their family is disconnected from all of that. In my case, there was great involvement with the family all through the years.”

On his mentors
  • the late Frank Rose, president of Spence’s alma mater, University of Alabama, during his graduate years: “While I did not have a personal relationship with him, I was at a place where I could watch many of the things he did and that really made an impression on me. It was a mentoring role from a distance.”
  • the late Rev. Thomas Zimmerman, general superintendent of Assemblies of God for 26 years: “He was a very effective administrator and a great mentor.”
  • former City Utilities General Manager Robert Roundtree: “On the business side, Robert Roundtree was a great mentor. Also, [Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce President] Jim Anderson. While he is not my senior in years, has been a real mentor to me because he is one of the most effective facilitators of getting people working together I’ve even seen.”
On what he’s reading now
“I have continued to value books that I think give me some appreciation for what leaders in other areas and times have dealt with. I’ve read rather heavily in recent years from the World War II era and looking at some of the military commanders and some of their work – Eisenhower, Marshall, McArthur.

On what keeps him up at night
“I’m not a late-night person. It’s what wakes me up early in the morning. We are so definitely tied to enrollment. With the increasing cost of higher education and students dealing with loans, it’s the concern for how we can help students not only get to Evangel but do whatever we can to avoid them ending up with loan levels that are going to be an impairment to them as they go forward. I don’t want us to ever reach the place where we’re not sensitive to the needs of the student and the student’s family to be able to recruit them.”

On retirement
“I’m looking forward to more time with family. For Anne and me to move beyond the demanding schedule that we’ve had – for at that point will be 40 years here – and have more time to do those things that we want to do and spend more time with family. That’s at the top of my list. These nine grandchildren are getting older. I want to spend as much time with them in these growing, formative years as I can.”

Click here for full coverage of the 2012 Economic Impact Awards.

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