“What Cha Doin’ Now” To Make a Better World?

Genteel and soft-spoken, 93-year old Don Spencer is still on the lookout for new things he wants to do. “When I find new opportunities,” he explains, “I’m willing to try them. And with most things I’ve tried, I’ve had the feeling that if I really make an effort, I can do it.”

Among his undertakings has been a lifetime of civil rights activism in which, when it came to integration and justice, he initiated many “firsts” in Cincinnati. He has also excelled as an educator, real estate broker, pianist, musical composer, and swimmer.

Spencer and his like-mindedly activist wife Marian have led a 68-year long life together in service to the community and in personal devotion to their family of two sons and two grandsons. “My philosophy of life has been when you leave this world,” he has observed, “it should be better because you have lived.”

As empty nesters, Don and Marian traveled the world, exploring Egypt, Europe, South America, Hong Kong (four times), and more. When he was 91, the couple visited the Panama Canal. “In foreign countries I like to stay in houses built by the people who live there,” he says. “I like to see the things that the native inhabitants think are good.”

In 1962 the couple also built a place on a lake in northeastern Indiana where they spend summers. Don was instrumental in building a lodge and constructing a beach for the community of Fox Lake in the late 1960s.

Don and Marian helped raise their grandson, Oliver, now a lawyer in Seattle, who moved into their home at age 16. According to Don, the teenager said he wanted to live with his grandparents because they had a “more structured lifestyle.”

Every morning Don plays the piano – he says he wakes up with a song on his mind – and during my visit he sat down at the piano with Marian to perform some of the pieces he’d composed.

The couple is completely in synch with each other’s political activities. Marian has always had a penchant for saying and doing whatever she felt was right. She chaired the NAACP’s legal action against Cincinnati’s Coney Island, which denied entrance to African Americans, and was instrumental in desegregating the park. “All of our lives we have tried to support things that were right,” Don comments. “Wherever Marian is involved, I help.”

His good deeds have not gone unnoticed. He has been showered with honorary doctorates, awards, and proclamations speaking to his lifetime of fighting for equality and justice. In 2006 both he and Marian received honorary doctorate of humane letters degrees from the University of Cincinnati.

Don likes to share his honors with Marian, who has been similarly feted. “Our years have been a life together in service to the community,” he emphasizes. “We talked about doing this type of work together back when we were dating.”

At 93, he knows he can’t do the things he did when he was 39. “I realize my own limitations, both physically and mentally, and accept them,” he acknowledges, “like the fact that I pant when I go up steps and can’t walk as far as I used to. But all in all, I feel good.”

Marian and Don swim together at the neighborhood Melrose YMCA three times a week. His swimming style is sleek and graceful, and he can finish 25 lengths without stopping.

Don reads books by his favorite authors, such as John Grisham, and pours over Newsweek to keep abreast of world events. He regularly indulges in bridge, gin, and 500 rummy, and enjoys watching basketball and baseball. “I do ordinary things, like going out to dinner – just like always.”

He is concerned that many African Americans don’t know enough about their own history -- how hard a struggle it was to accomplish the freedoms of riding on public transportation, buying homes where they want, eating at the restaurant of their choice, and achieving their career goals.

Don is dismayed that people seem to have gotten into a frenzy over wanting to have more for themselves and possess more things than others have. “They just don’t know when they’re happy,” observes this man who has spent a lifetime concerned for the welfare of others.

Knowing firsthand the satisfaction that a life of service brings (and evoking one of his musical compositions from seventy-five years ago), he asks one question of today’s generations: What cha doin’ now to make a better world?

Don Spencer