By Jessica Brodie
Dr. R. Wright Spears—a man deeply committed to social justice, equality, higher education and peace who led Columbia College as president for 26 years—has died.
At age 102, Spears passed away peacefully in his sleep early Tuesday morning Feb. 10, 2015. He died in the same care center in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Silver Bluff, where his beloved wife, Mary Blue, spent her last years of life.
Memorial services will be held after Easter (see below). His body has been given to Duke University Medical Center for research purposes—his final gift after a lifetime of service.
A United Methodist pastor who was born in Clio and served South Carolina churches from 1935 to 1951, Spears became Columbia College’s 12th president in 1951 and led the college through years of transition, including racial integration and rebuilding the college after a devastating fire.
A graduate of Wofford College and Duke Divinity School, Spears served the community, city, state and full denomination, earning a reputation as a kind soul and sharp mind with a true heart for God and all his people. He served as a delegate to General and Jurisdictional conferences, served on various UMC boards and agencies and authored two books—“Journey Toward Unity: The Christian Action Council 1933-1983,” and “One in the Spirit: Ministry for Change in South Carolina.”
He spent his later years at Lake Junaluska, where he died in the very mountains he loved. But his work did not stop with retirement. In 2008, at age 95, he founded the Lake Junaluska Peace Conference, a major annual interfaith conference honoring God’s call to peacemaking and reconciliation.
Lake Junaluska Executive Director Jack Ewing called Spears “the saint of Lake Junaluska and beyond” who accomplished more in the last 25 years of his life than people do in an entire lifetime.
“He was the best man I ever knew,” Ewing told the Advocate. “I think it’s safe to say that there has been no more influential person on Lake Junaluska in the last 50 years than Wright Spears—serving on our board, serving in any number of leadership roles, but in his latter years, being the heart and soul and conscience of Lake Junaluska.”
Ewing said Spears practiced what he calls a ministry of affirmation. While in his later years he couldn’t get out much, Spears would constantly call people on the phone.
“And every time he would call, he would be talking about something he had heard about or observed that we had done and he just wanted you to know how much he appreciated you.
This happened time and time and time again,” Ewing said. “He had this amazing gift of making you feel at that moment in time that you were the most important person in the world, even though you knew he was probably making other phone calls to other people that day. He just made you feel good. I think we were all better people as a result of him.”
Ewing said it was Spears who fervently encouraged him to take the position as director of Lake Junaluska.
“He had a vision of what the Kingdom of God should be, and he helped us live more fully into that,” Ewing said.
Beth Dinndorf, Columbia College president, said Spears lived a life of steadfast faith and integrity.
“I was blessed to know him and honored to call him my friend,” Dinndorf said. “His spirit will always be with us and in the hearts of the alumnae, faculty, staff and students. Walking humbly with God, he lived a life of service. He inspires us to live passionately and fully, to be leaders, to be in humble service to humankind and to always trust in God. What a privilege it has been to know this saintly man.”
Columbia College prepared a tribute website to honor Spears, featuring information about his life and legacy, as well as a number of photos of Spears throughout the years: www.honoringdrspears.com. According to Columbia College, Spears continued his love for the school until the day he died, continuing to write, counsel and consult Columbia College and contribute in any way he could. In 2004, he was awarded Columbia College’s highest honor, the Sesquicentennial Medallion, for “a lifetime of exceptional service to the College, the United Methodist Church, and the greater community.”
Others said they were privileged to call Spears a mentor, including the Rev. John Culp, who said Spears was a prophetic leader.
“Wright Spears gave us 102 years of love and a witness for justice and peace,” said Culp. “We are grieving over the passing of him and so many in his generation, which represented the word of God in the civil rights years.”
Parker Evatt, prison ministry advocate and former S.C. legislator, Department of Corrections commissioner and director of the Alston Wilkes Society, was Spears’ friend for 53 years and saw Spears just three days before he died. For the past 14 years, since Evatt has had a home at Lake Junaluska, they enjoyed golf outings and weekly lunches, where they’d spend hours talking and talking.
“I always called him Mr. President,” Evatt said, laughing. “We’d have lunch, and all during the lunch at least 10 to 15 people came to say something to him. He was just one special human being. Everybody loved him. We’ll miss him.”
Evatt first met Spears in 1962 at College Place Methodist Church, when Spears was president of Columbia College, and Evatt had been impressed by Spears’ deep commitment to the community, particularly in the area of social justice. Among other things, Spears had a heart for prisoners, and wanted to minister to them and those recently released.
“He’d say, ‘I’d like to go down there one day a month and greet them and say I love you and God loves you and you’re not forgotten,’” Evatt recalled, noting how Spears joined him and others from both black and white churches—back then, the conference was not integrated—and visit prisoners twice a month for at least a year.
Spears was active in so many different things, Evatt said, from the Christian Action Council to civil rights advocacy to the state Department of Social Services to his work for the UMC on various levels.
“I’ve never seen a man loved any more,” Evatt said. “He touched the lives of so many people.”
In Spears’ book “One in the Spirit,” former S.C. Gov. Robert E. McNair called Spears a “moving force in the state.”
“Dr. Spears is one of those unique individuals who was a community leader, political leader and religious leader, respected by all,” McNair wrote.
MaryAnn Crews, who was a student at Columbia College and later was director of alumni affairs, said she and so many others loved Spears dearly. As a freshman in 1955, Spears let Crews and her sister borrow the college vehicle to travel to Florida when they had an unexpected travel snafu. She said Spears never forgot that, and would call them decades later out of the blue and laugh about it—just as he would call so many people, simply to let them know he cared.
“Up until his last days, he was alert and caring about other people. He called me when I had an episode two years ago, and here came the phone call from Dr. Spears telling me he’s praying for me. That's really special for somebody to remember you all those years,” Crews said. “He was just a giant of a man who never forgot who you were and never forgot to show you love and affection.”
Janet Alexander Cotter, who graduated from Columbia College in 1956, said Spears kept up with her, too, over the years.
“Dr. Spears was just an outstanding influence of thousands of young women, and it was always positive,” Cotter said. “He had a way with people; he was just wonderful, and always with that smile, that twinkle in his eye. I think he was a man of God. I really do.”
- Columbia College will host a memorial service for Dr. Spears at College Place United Methodist Church, Columbia, Saturday, April 11, at 2 p.m. A reception at Alumnae Hall will follow the service.
- A service will also be held at Lake Junaluska at 2 p.m. April 10.
For more on Spears and his life and legacy, visit www.honoringdrspears.com.
Some information gleaned from Columbia College tribute website www.honoringdrspears.com.