By Ken Knickerbocker

Delco Today Published: 5:22 am EDT June 13, 2023Updated: 7:23 am EDT June 13, 2023

Leon Spencer, CCRES board member and Chair of Franklin Mint Federal Credit Union’s board of directors, spoke with DELCO Today about growing up on a dairy farm in Kennett Square and his lifelong love of music.

Beginning with singing in the church choir with his family and playing the string bass in the school orchestra, he branched out to jazz band and won a regional battle of the bands contest before graduating high school.

Music remained the foundation of Spencer’s career, including teaching music in public schools and performing, but he also became involved in public service as the mayor of Kennett Square. Spencer reflected on the people who helped him succeed, his work mentoring young people and the most memorable concert he ever took part in.

Where were you born and where did you grow up?

I was born in WilmingtonDelaware and grew up south of Kennett Square on a dairy farm owned by J. Albert Marshall. Most of the land was devoted to Guernsey cows. We rented a house on his property, and behind our house were black Angus cows.

Where were you in the pecking order – the oldest, the youngest or in between?

I was the youngest of two children. My sister, rest her soul, was two years older. We lived in a stone and frame house where my mother was born. My mom, dad, sister and I lived in the frame side of the house, and on the stone side of the house, my maternal grandmother, maternal grandfather and my uncle, who had some limitations, lived there.

What did your mom and dad do for a living?

My dad was a laborer in the textile industry on the operations side. He was quite handy with construction and masonry.

My mother was a domestic for the Marshall family, following in the footsteps of my grandmother.

It’s worth noting that all of my neighbors were white. I found that rather rewarding, because when I’d go to church on Sunday, the New Garden UAME Church on Linden Street in Kennett, everybody looked like us. When I went to the barbershop, there were people who specialized in the hair texture that I had, and they all looked like us. But none of my neighbors did. So, at a young age, I learned to value people for who they were. That’s made a huge difference in my life.

What memories stay with you from growing up on the farm?

Behind the house was a fence, and occasionally one of the cows would come up and stick his nose through the fence. I remember I was 4 years old. I slowly walked up to the fence and petted the cow on the nose. He became my buddy.

That night or the next night, we were having steak for dinner. I was still at that age where I was asking all kinds of questions, and I asked my mom, “Where does steak come from?” She told me that it came from cows. I burst into tears and swore I would never eat steak again. Of course, that all changed when I got older.

Did you play any sports when you were growing up?

While I loved and rooted for our teams in high school, I was not interested in participating in sports. I was into music.

When did your love of music first awaken in you?

In fourth grade, we were introduced to the opportunity to play instruments. I chose the string bass. I had an uncle who I’m told was the first student in the history of the Kennett Consolidated School District to play a string bass, and I idolized him. I was also taken by the size of the instrument and the sound. When I first started playing, I had to sit on a stool. What a fun instrument – I still play string bass and bass guitar today.

Where did your music interest go from there?

In high school, I played in the orchestra and the jazz band.

My eventual business partner, Fred Biondi, and I both had the opportunity to play in the high school jazz band, even though both of us were in junior high. That meant, of course, that we were pretty cool! I was also a member of the Kennett Symphony when it was considered a community orchestra.

While in high school, I also played in the limited Kennett High School Marching Band. Kennett didn’t have a football team then, so the band only played for a couple of parades and concerts each year. I played drums – tenor drum sophomore and junior years and bass drum my senior year.

All of my family had a knack for singing. We sang in the church choir when I was growing up.

Where do you think that knack for music comes from?

It’s your environment. My mom would sing all the time, my grandmother would sing, my dad would sing. It was something that I heard and was around from a very young age, and I was able to develop it and formalize it. I sang in the high school choir – we had a madrigal group. Between that and all the instrumental music, I was pretty well immersed.

My sophomore year, I started to play in a cover band that proved to be rather successful. In 1967, the music manufacturer Vox, had a battle of the bands competition for bands in Maryland, Delaware and Pennsylvania. You could submit a tape of your band, and we were one of five bands chosen for the junior division. We won, and we thought we were hot stuff!

I suggested to my parents my senior year that I didn’t see the need to go to college because I was going to do this music thing. Of course, they saw it differently.

Did you have a favorite artist?

Not particularly. I’ve always had an attraction to sound – not just musical sound, but the timbre of voices, for example. As strange as it may sound, if I heard a car start, I could almost determine the make of the car just by the sound. That also led to my interest in foreign language – Spanish, French, Latin.

What about jobs while you were growing up?

My very first job was mowing grass at the residence of the Haldeman family in Chadds Ford. In my college years, I did the factory thing. I worked shift work for NVF, which was a paper processing company in Yorklyn, Delaware. I don’t know how people did it then, and I don’t know how they do it now. I did that for one summer, and then I did the textile industry.

One summer, I was working the second shift on a loading dock in Wilmington. The supervisor came to me and said, “Your dad tells me you speak Spanish. We just hired two guys who moved here from Italy. They know no English at all. People tell me that Spanish and Italian are pretty similar, so why don’t you supervise them?” I found out that there are similarities, and we were able to communicate. By the end of the summer, before I went back to college, they gave me a bottle of homemade wine and some Italian bread.

Where did you end up going to college?

I ended up at Muskingum University in Ohio, which is a private Presbyterian school. One of my best friends at Kennett was a guy named Tom Wilson. We were very close – we were in our church youth group together. He went to Ohio Wesleyan and got me excited about looking at small schools in Ohio. Muskingum seemed to fit my interests from a musical standpoint.

Was it a good choice for you, looking back?

I think it was. Much of it had to do with the fact that it was a small school. It was in a rural setting, so there were many similarities to where I grew up. There were not a lot of, to use the term we used at the time, Negro students on the campus, but there were students from different parts of the world. It was a great mix of people.

When did you start college?

1968. The great fear we all had, as young men, was being registered for the draft. I ended up with an educational deferment, but in ’70 or ’71, the lottery started. That was a nervous time. My number was 286, so the chances of me going to Vietnam were very slim, but I knew some people who did. I knew a guy from Kennett who died in combat. That had a profound effect.

Another big thing for us in that time was the argument – a valid argument – that you want us to go fight in combat and we don’t even have the right to vote.

As you look back over your career and your life, Leon, who were the people who saw promise in you?

There were several – I can’t do justice to all of them. One who comes to mind is my high school choir director, Carolyn Wolf She was a motivator in her own way. She wasn’t aggressive in any way, but she continued to remind me that I had some skills and abilities she thought were worthy of pursuit. I’m forever grateful to her.

Heading the list, obviously, were my mom and dad. I came from a very conservative, faith-based Christian home. There were times as a young person, living in a world where I was trying to fit in that being a Christian was not always convenient. I now conclude that that (Christianity) has made all the difference in my life. 

Later in life, when I returned to Kennett, the former superintendent of the Kennett School District, Larry Bosley, became one of my primary mentors to this day. He’s the kind of person I can go to and talk to about anything. He’s never told me what to do, but as we talk through things, he gives me enough input that helps me decide what to do.

What are you focused on now? What are your priorities?

It seems that everywhere I go today, I see people with scowls on their faces. I have a deeply seated interest in helping people – that sounds clichéd, but that’s just the way it is. One of the things I learned during my recent political campaign is that I am not a politician. I’m a public servant. There’s a great difference between the two. I simply want to help people. So, if I can make you smile or laugh, that, to me, is very important.

“I’m also focused on fighting social and political division. I get really hurt, sometimes drawn to tears, by such division. I once heard, “We have but one next of kin.” What that really says is that we are made in one God-breathed image. I continually seek to promote that. In some small way, I’m going to promote that.

Outside of that, I keep the music going. Right now we’re assembling a gospel choir for a Juneteenth celebration. Picking the music for that has been fun. I also play in three other ensembles. One will be doing the Maryland scene. I’m playing tomorrow up in Norristown at a place called Presidential Caterers for a special event. And a Memorial Day parade – we have a group of alumni band members who play under the guidance of Bill Johnson. We play military themes and Dixieland style.

Leon, looking back, is there a gig or concert you played at that’s especially memorable for you?

There have been a lot. I was music director of a church in Ohio for several years, and every year, in the Advent season, we did a _____________. The church choir I directed had about 40 active members, and we would align with some other churches to get anywhere from 80 to 100 singers. I would say that the first performance I directed of Handel’s “Messiah” – I don’t claim to be the greatest director, but there was something spiritual about that experience that I’ve always remembered.

What do you do with all your free time?

I have to say, I don’t really have free time. My wife Kathy and I don’t go to movies – for me, movies take too long. I can’t say that I’m well-read. Finding time to sit down and read a book is not something that I typically do. This time of year, I love getting dirt under my fingernails as I’m planting my garden.

What’s something you’ve changed your mind about over the last five years?

I think it’s the abortion issue for me. I am very much a pro-life person. When people say to me, “Well, that little fetus doesn’t have a brain” – it’s a human life. I am about preserving that human life.

At the same time, I’m also about victims’ rights. If a woman is put in a compromised position and she’s raped, and the result of that rape is her being impregnated, it is most likely that she is carrying something inside her that she knows very little about, all the more so if she doesn’t know the perpetrator. She must be granted the right to make a decision about that.

What keeps you hopeful and optimistic, Leon?

Youth. Young people. I’ve had the privilege over the last three years of mentoring a young man who’s about to graduate from high school. This kid is a brainiac plus. His sisters both went to the Chester County Technical College High School. One of them approached me one day, out of the blue, and said, “We have a brother who’s really bright. He’s a great kid, but he doesn’t have any idea what he wants to do with his life. Would you take him under your wing?”

What a relationship. This kid just committed to Swarthmore College. He applied to 21 colleges and universities. He spent last summer at Stanford taking eight-week classes he qualified for in anthropology and Japanese. He aced them both. He runs about a 4.35 GPA. He’s involved in the band, he’s a class officer. He’s a truly wonderful, genuine human being. When I spend time with him, I know the future is bright. There’s another young man I’ve been working with over the past six or seven years – similar situation.

I was at the Technical College High School yesterday, emceeing this assembly, and I told the students, “You have some of the best manners I’ve ever seen.” If we allow them, guide them, our future is bright because of them.

Finally, Leon, what’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

Remember that God’s always with you. There are times you’re going to be challenged and have doubt, but there’s somebody bigger and stronger and greater than you and everyone around you, and that’s God. I carry a cross in my pocket to remind myself. There have been many times where I’ve gone to get change for a parking meter, and what do I feel in my pocket? God’s always with me. That keeps me going.