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Epilogue | Sally Spencer

World was open to Sally Spencer, and she was open to world

BELLEAIR — Sally Spencer traveled to the world's most glamorous places.

She slept in plush hotels in Maui and Venice. She took her grandchildren on a cruise to Barcelona, Monaco and Rome. She spent every summer vacationing in the south of France.

But luxury is only intriguing for so long.

One year, she became bored by the decadence in France. She hopped a plane and landed in a new location.


• • •

The tug to explore started early.

After two years studying fashion design in college, she felt unfulfilled. She switched to nursing and dove into literature, reading The Fountainhead over and over.

She worked as an emergency room nurse in Fort Lauderdale. She sacrificed a nursing job at the 1960 Winter Olympics in Lake Tahoe. Instead, she stayed home and married James Spencer.

The couple had two sons, Stephen and Scott. They brought injured animals home, and she fixed them. When Scott came through the front door with a skateboard and a broken arm once, she jumped up.

"I about fainted," said Mr. Spencer, 75. "She went right into action."

In the 1960s, waves of Cuban refugees came ashore in South Florida. Mrs. Spencer volunteered to help the local medical team three days a week for a year.

The experience stirred her.

"She went places that other people would probably hesitate to go," said her friend Margaret Word Burnside. "She was just so fascinated by any kind of exploration."

She did medical research in Siberia, Mongolia and China. She volunteered in Kenya and cared for children in Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan. She went into Borneo's rain forests to study orangutans in 1985.

She took the wheel of a Volks­wagen camper on stateside family trips. Mrs. Spencer liked to pop tents in the middle of nowhere. Her husband, an investment manager, preferred four walls and a bed. She'd spend a few nights at motels to appease him.

She traveled with her grandchildren as soon as they turned 7. She wanted them to be mature enough. They went to Alaska, the Galapagos Islands, China, the Amazon Rover, London, Paris, Costa Rica, Egypt and Kenya.

A couple of years ago, Burnside received a letter from her friend. It contained a photograph of Mrs. Spencer, smiling and surrounded by tribal people. It looked like something out of National Geographic.

But Mrs. Spencer was merely celebrating her 70th birthday.

In New Guinea.

• • •

Back home in Belleair, she served on charitable boards and art foundations. She worked with the parks department to help plant 100 trees in her community. She went to fundraisers and socialized with a close group of friends.

She didn't like to sit mindlessly at expensive lunches.

"She was a very quiet person," her husband said. "She would rather be puttering around the yard or taking care of the grandchildren. She was very different from most of the people I know."

In October, doctors found a tumor on her shoulder. Later, they found more in her body. She spent her last days in a hospice room. Her husband suggested she come home, but she wanted to stay. She was a nurse, and she knew best.

Mrs. Spencer died Wednesday. She was 72.

Stephanie Hayes can be reached at or (727) 893-8857.


Sally Spencer

Born: Aug. 20, 1935.

Died: May 14, 2008.

Survivors: husband James; sons, Stephen and Scott; daughter-in-law, Wendy Ann; grandchildren, Dillon Scott, James William, Ansley Elizabeth, Joseph Cooley, Jennifer Kathleen and Sally Michelle. Services are private.

World was open to Sally Spencer, and she was open to world 05/17/08 [Last modified: Saturday, May 17, 2008 9:03pm]
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