'We all breathe the same air'
When Leon Spencer, the Southern Chester County Chamber of Commerce's Outstanding Citizen of the Year recipient for 2016, was informed of his distinction, it was not through the usual channels of communication.
There was no congratulatory letter in the mail, no phone call from Chamber president and CEO Cheryl Kuhn, and certainly no dinner; that will take place on March 24 at Longwood Gardens, before hundreds of the community's top movers and shakers.
Rather, Spencer learned of his honor another way. The people he works with at the Technical College High School's Pennock’s Bridge campus in West Grove, in conjunction with the SCCCC, simply set him up.
It was a diversion carved from genius. Several staff at the school took Spencer on an unnecessary tour of the school's engine technology center, cornered him with pressing questions, and created a mock situation that called for his mediation.
On his way to settle one issue, Spencer entered a classroom and there they were, waiting for him: Kuhn, his wife Kathryn, school principal Dr. Brian Hughes, assistant principal Paul Siever, school officials, as well as Chamber chairman John Jaros and members Joan Holliday, Jim Horn, and Dave Haradon. Jaros then told Spencer that he had been selected as the Southern Chester County Chamber of Commerce's Outstanding Citizen of the Year. Several students who were there to witness the announcement broke into applause.
"I'm not normally a speechless kind of person, but I was speechless," Spencer said. "There was nothing that I could say except, 'Thank you.'"
With the award, Spencer joins an elite list of 50 local leaders who have been the recipients of the Citizen of the Year honors from the Chamber, which include Haradon in 2015, Holliday in 2014 and Horn in 2008. The award is given annually to a member of the community who unselfishly contributes to the community's quality of life and displays exemplary volunteer efforts that demonstrate vision, leadership and citizenship that positively impact the southern Chester County region.
To the thousands of community leaders and residents who have rolled up the sleeves with Spencer over the past several decades, word of his recognition has been met with the highest of praise. The resume, after all, speaks for itself: Since he returned to Kennett Square in 1991 after several years in Ohio, he has been a member and vice president of the Kennett Consolidated School Board; president of the Chester County Intermediate Unit Board of Directors; secretary of the board for the YMCA of the Brandywine Valley; board member for the Southern Chester County United Way and Kendal-Crosslands Communities; mayor of the Borough of Kennett Square from 1999 to 2010; vice chairman of the Chester County School Authority; supervisor for the Chester County Head Start program; member of the board of the Chester County Regional Education Service; president of the Kennett Square Borough Council; co-owner of Pro Musica Studio in Kennett Square; and a School To Careers specialist for the Chester County Technical College High School's Pennock's Bridge campus.
He is also a vocal instructor; a choir director for the MLK Choir; a solo performer; bassist/vocalist for the ensemble known as SydeTwo; and lead vocalist for the R&B band Goodfoot and, when time permits, serves as the public address announcer for Kennett High School sports.
"My primary emphasis of this award is for everyone else who will be in the room [at the awards ceremony]," he said. "I am nothing without other people. When I look at what I have been able to do -- accomplishments, if you will -- they were never done alone, ever. They all required the presence of other people.
"The expression 'No man is an island' is absolutely true. It's the result of a collective spirit."
Born in Wilmington, Spencer grew up in Kennett Square during the 1950s and 60s, during a time when the lines of segregation had permeated the core of America, and seeped into his hometown. His family was the only African-American family in a two-and-a-half-mile radius of his home. He visited a "Negro" barber, attended a "Negro" church, and yet, he attended Kennett High School which had by then become a racially-mixed school. Throughout his childhood, his parents Luella and Leon, his grandparents, as well as teachers and pastors, all stressed the power of integration.
"What I garnered from those influences was the importance of being a mainstream sort of person," he said. "As a result, I learned to accept the fact that while we may look different, and while we may have different inflections in our speech, that in essence, we are all the same.
"The message was clear to me. We all breathe the same air."
The foundation that has ultimately paved --and defined -- Spencer's life was borne out of irony, and traced to a time, many years ago, when he was a naysayer, the type of person who habitually pointed the root of problems at an imaginary group named "They," as in, "They ought to fix that," and "Don't they know that this is wrong?"
One day, the realization that he had become an armchair quarterback hit him.
"I struck me that there was no reason for me to talk about what 'They' ought to do, if I wasn't wiling to do it myself, to stick my neck out and be a part of the solution instead of griping about the problem," he said. "If I have the ability to be involved and choose not to be, I'm not fulfilling my God-given talent. I see things that need to be done, and I decide that I want to be a part of the solution."
Rather than sift through opportunities like choosing from a menu, Spencer, soon after returning to his hometown 27 years ago, dove headlong into them and he shows no signs of letting up. His calendar is an inked-up scribble of obligations, places to see and people to meet with, that take him into the local thickets of politics, music, education, special events and volunteerism. Often, he misses dinner with Kathryn.
He is driven, he said, by a lingering, incurable itch to get things done, and connect people to people. In his words, Spencer said he does not "sit well."
He is a public figure, and because of it, or perhaps as a result of it, his actions and deeds are often put before the firing line of public opinion, heard loudest when he was the mayor of Kennett Square, and during his years on the Kennett borough council. At his last Kennett borough council meeting last December, Spencer stood up to an attendee who disagreed with him. He turned to his faith, which he calls his "protective shield."
"As I looked back on it, if the man who got in my face got into dire straits, my faith tells me that I would pick him up and take care of him," he said. "That's what gets me through. A good friend of mine once told me that when I go into a meeting, 'Go in prayed up.'
"I have always made a point to do just that. I don't know what I am going to encounter, but if I go in 'prayed up,' there's always direction given."
Of all of the titles that Spencer owns -- politician, musician, choir leader, public address announcer, board member -- the affiliation that best suits him is "teacher." For the past six years, his work at the technical high school has allowed him to support the dreams of young people who he calls "some of the best people in the world."
"In any area of my life, it has always come to down to teaching -- the gift to direct and guide people and not talk at them, but to them," he said. "For instance, the MLK Choir will never produce anything of quality if the person directing them talks at them. Teaching is about engaging others. Once a choir member feels that they are a part of the process, you end up with a beautiful, harmonious production."
When Spencer steps to the podium to deliver his remarks at next Friday evening's ceremony, he will thank many people, but no mention of any name will be more important than Kathryn's.
"Kathy's the answer to so many positives for me," he said. "She is the greatest support I have. She accepts the fact that I am seldom at the dinner table. She accepts the fact that I am doing the things I am doing, because I see a need to do them. She accepts the fact that I am not willing to slow down. She accepts the fact that I am not interested in retirement.
At this stage in his life, Spencer said that he does not seek recognition, titles, or even the gift of being named Outstanding Citizen of the Year.
"I need to pay attention to what I am told my direction ought to be," he said. "It's whatever God tells me to do...and Kathryn has to be included in whatever that formula is."
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
What they're saying about Leon Spencer:
"Leon Spencer's commitment to the residents of Kennett Square has been of great benefit in uplifting people's spirits, bringing fair and sincere decision making to government and being an encouraging presence in the community. His public speaking at Chamber events, new initiative ribbon cuttings, eulogies, is always clear and inspiring. Leon communicates life's positive vision through music as he leads the Kennett Community Choir at the yearly MLK Breakfast, Christmas caroling at the Kennett Tree Lighting ceremony, many student choral groups and his funky band, Goodfoot.
"In serving as Kennett Square Mayor and Borough Council President, Leon brought a balanced, resident-oriented perspective, and worked closely with the police department and other agencies with positive encouragement. He is, and has been, everywhere in the community, always greeting everyone with an encouraging smile."
Dennis Melton, Kennett Square architect
"I love Leon Spencer, because he is a man of the highest integrity. He lives by his core values and Christian beliefs, while inspiring others to do the same. For many years, I have joined Leon with the Kennett Community Choir and with Christmas caroling on the streets of Kennett. He is the Music Man of Kennett Square, leading the community in harmonization."
Joan Holliday, Bridging the Community
"I have so much respect for Leon in his personal and his professional life, that it's hard to articulate. He brings an incredible, can-do, positive and vibrant attitude every day that he shares with our students. His connections in the communities that we serve are an unbelievable value to our students. In helping our students prepare for the transition from school to the workplace, he brings in leaders from business and industry to interview students prior to these students even leaving our school."
Dr. Brian Hughes, Principal, Technical College High School's Pennock’s Bridge campus