I learned today that my favorite teacher I ever had passed away yesterday at the age of only 79. Bernard “Red” Spence was my 7th and 8th grade teacher back in 1985 and ’86. The school was Watertown Elementary, in the tiny village of Watertown, Ohio, each classroom containing two grades.
Mr. Spence was probably the first person to really instill in me a love for making art. He was an amazing watercolor painter, specializing in rural landscapes. His pieces depicted old barns and run-down sheds, mills and streams and whatever else he happened to come across.
Perhaps he could see some artistic potential in me, but he would regularly show me his pieces and techniques. At this time I was also enamored with painters like Bob Ross, so I was playing with oils and acrylics instead of watercolors, but it was all the same to me. During my time in Mr. Spence’s class, I painted and sketched many a run-down barn. At the time, he was an artistic rock star to me, and to this day, it’s rare that I pick up a brush and not think of him. And now that he’s gone, I wish I’d kept in contact, or at least had some of his work. Hopefully I can get my hands on some before the prices skyrocket (this is a hint to family and friends back in Ohio).
Below are some of my (very) early attempts at painting, from 1986, ’87 and ’88.
Beyond the artwork, he was just an all-around great teacher. You couldn’t get away with much, but I don’t think we ever felt a need to. I’ll never forget how he’d read to both classes at the end of the day. The two books I remember him reading annually were Where the Red Fern Grows and, for some reason, a book called Grizzly. It was a Jaws-esque thriller about a man-eating grizzly bear. He self-edited out the naughty bits and bad language, though, but we ate it up. I was also one of a lucky group of kids that got to go to his house to watch the movie adaptation. At the time it felt like a big honor.
Over the years, I’d bump into Mr. Spence from time to time. I was always surprised he still remembered me out of all those other kids that had passed through his classroom. I don’t remember specific conversations, but I’m pretty sure I always asked if he was still painting, and the answer would always be ‘yes’. We’ve been in Georgia almost six years now, and it’s probably been close to ten since I’ve seen him, so it’s hard to tell if he kept up his artwork. I’d certainly like to think so. Such a shame that he passed so young, I really wish I’d been able to stay in touch.
Still, I think no other teacher had an influence on me like Red Spence, and I have no doubt dozens of other former students can say the same. Thanks for the lessons and inspiration, Mr. Spence. You will be missed.