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.