Innerviews: Professor wraps up 30 years at State
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- He's a campus favorite, a doctor of psychology, the beloved laid-back professor with the always-open door and a heartfelt concern for students.
A native of Buffalo, N.Y., James Spencer arrived at West Virginia State 30 years ago fresh from graduate school at Ohio State. The college got a double deal -- a psychology teacher and historian in one erudite package.
He wrote a history of the psychology department and is writing a biography of its founder, Francis Sumner, the first African-American to earn a psychology doctorate. An ongoing project traces the history of the lobotomy era in West Virginia.
He started the campus chapter of Psi Chi psychology honorary and chaired the psychology department for years. Every semester, he endears himself to students by volunteering to do whatever they ask of him in exchange for contributions to charity.
He retires in May at 58. Early, yes. But that all-important inner voice tells him it's time to go.
"I grew up in a suburb of Buffalo, N.Y., called Williamsville. My father was a mechanic. Ultimately, he worked for the Williamsville school system as head bus driver. He didn't just fix the buses, he planned the routes and that sort of thing.
"He was a mechanic in the Army. I wrote a Goldenseal piece about something he did after World War II as part of the Victory Loan Tour. My dad may have been one of the few people in the world who sat in a car owned by Hitler and a car owned by Franklin Roosevelt. He was stationed in Washington, D.C. during the war and claimed he serviced Roosevelt's car.
"This car they captured was one of Goering's cars. My dad was one of the people who went around with it after the war for the bond tour.
"I didn't just decide I wanted to be a teacher. It was one of those moments you have. It happened the first day I taught a class in graduate school at Ohio State in 1978. All my other friends who were doing that said how nervous they were. I walked into that classroom, and teaching seemed like the most natural thing in the world.
"My undergraduate degree was at Canisius College in Buffalo, a Jesuit school. As a sophomore, you had to decide on a major. I thought about what I liked. Animals have always been my first love. I think I have this memory. I was probably 5, and there was a wild rabbit, and we had an Irish setter, and I was afraid the dog was going to get the rabbit. I remember picking up this wild rabbit and moving it.
"I didn't want to be a veterinarian. It was too personal. I decided on psychology. Psychology is the study of behavior and animal behavior is part of that.
"I ended up in graduate school at Ohio State studying animal behavior. It's called comparative psychology. I teach a class in it.
"The second year, you had an automatic teaching position if you wanted it. I needed to eat. And I'd thought about being a teacher. I'd done it informally as a kid. I remember teaching my best friend to do math problems. In third grade, my teacher let me correct other kids' tests. It seemed like the perfect fit for me.
"I taught five years at Ohio State as a graduate student, then I got the job here. I came to West Virginia on April 1, 1983, 30 years ago.
"See those three pictures up there? Those three gentlemen were instrumental in our department. The one in the middle is Herman Canady, father of the judge. That's Paul Crawford. He chaired the department from 1967 until 1987.
"The gentleman on the far left is Francis Sumner. I'm writing a biography of him. He was the first African-American to receive a Ph.D. in psychology. He founded the department here in 1921 and is considered the most eminent African-American psychologist ever.
"My advisor in grad school was a psycho-historian. He had just completed a history of Ohio State's psychology department. I was interested in psychology history.
"When I came here, the centennial of the school was coming up in 1991. I had the bright idea of doing a history of our department. I knew about Canady but not about Sumner. He was particularly interesting to me. I started working on a history of the school.
"After I became department chair in 1993, I didn't have time to do things like that anymore. When I revisited it 10 or 12 years ago, the Internet was available, and I had access to all this stuff unavailable to me before. I'm still putting it all together.
"I found out considerably more about Sumner. Despite his imminence, there was very little information about him here, so I had to patch everything together. I have it mostly done. He died at 58, my age.
"We had the history of psychology class on our books but no one taught it. Dr. Crawford asked if I would. That got me back into the history of psychology mode. If not for psychology, it would be history for me, so it was a perfect combination.
"I'd always had a passing interest in lobotomies. Five years ago, I noticed a PBS special, 'The Lobotomist,' about Dr. Walter Freeman. Part of it was about West Virginia. There was a brief interview with a fellow who had been at Lakin, Julian McCleod.
"The documentary was based on a book by Jack El-Hai, so I read his book. Students in my history of psychology class have to do a project. One of my students wanted to do hers on lobotomies.
"She contacted Howard Dully who wrote a book called 'My Lobotomy.' He had been lobotomized by Dr. Freeman in the early 1960s at the age of 11. His mother had requested it. My student contacted him on Facebook, and he sent her all this stuff, including an ice pick, which he autographed.
"In his book, El-Hai refers to the West Virginia Lobotomy Project. I found several references to it in the Gazette and Daily Mail from the late '40s up to the mid-'50s.
"I interviewed Julian McCleod. He lived down the street. He had been at Lakin when he was 18. As part of his training, he had to witness lobotomies.
"I was able to reconstruct a lot of details about the lobotomy project. I've written a paper about it. I want people to understand what went on in West Virginia. There were more lobotomies per capita in West Virginia than any other state.
"At the Culture Center, in a gray box, I found records of 119 people who had received lobotomies in 1952 and 1953 at Spencer State Hospital.
"Freeman photographed virtually all of his procedures, before, after and during. Anesthesia was electric shock. Then he would take the orbitoclast, his fancy word for ice pick, and put it in the eye under the upper eyelid and take a mallet and move the pick around. He did at least 30 or 40 lobotomies a day.
"The idea was to reduce the overflowing population in mental hospitals. They needed something to treat intractable patients. When the lobotomy came along in the mid-'30s, it was seen as a magic bullet.
"I want to pursue the subject in retirement, but I'm not really sure how. Something along the line of NPR? It's a story that needs to be told.
"When you come to a position, you have to find your niche. I decided I would be the one the students would come to. My policy has always been that when I am here, my door is open. Students are always my primary purpose.
"In 2001, I said I would shave my facial hair for some sort of donation. That was the semester of 9/11. We made a considerable amount and sent it to New York City. That started a tradition.
"Every semester, I tell students a dollar amount I want to raise for this specific charity. They have to tell me what they want me to do once that money is raised. I've kissed a pig, dressed as a clown, an Easter bunny, Miss Psi Chi. I took a pie in the face. I'll do anything within reason. I have a couple of favorite charities. One is Thanks! Plain and Simple, for Rosie the Riveters. The other is animal shelters.
"Part of the decision to retire is my health. I can't do the job the way I think I should. It's some sort of chronic immune system fatigue thing. I have battled it since the mid-'90s.
"And education is changing. I'm not an Internet teacher, and that's the trend. And students are changing. It's harder to keep their attention.
"It was never my intent to stay here 30 years, but after a while, you don't want to start over somewhere else. I still hope to teach. I'm teaching a class in the fall. I want to write. I want to work with animal shelters.
"Sometimes I will say things like, 'I am retiring in 39 days.' Part of you says, 'What am I going to do?' Work organizes your life. Another part of me says, 'No, it's time.' And you get that closure inside.
"There are going to be days when I'm going to miss this. But there are probably going to be a lot more days that I don't. When you get to that point, it's time to go.
"My duty is done. I will walk out with my head held high."
Reach Sandy Wells at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5173.