Spencer reflects on 44-year career

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Chris Powell
  • Airman magazine
In the early 1970s, America was at a crossroads. The Vietnam War raged on, seemingly with no end in sight, and many Americans felt forced to choose to either support the administration or protest the conflict, which left many families across the nation bitterly divided.

In 1970, when U.S. forces launched an invasion into Cambodia to attack North Vietnamese bases, widespread peace protests ignited across America. As protesters flocked to Washington D.C., and veterans spoke out against the war, there was arguably never a more unpopular time for America's youth to join the military.

But somehow, in 1971, a young Larry O. Spencer found himself walking into Iverson Mall in Temple Hills, Maryland. A few months after graduating from Central High School, where he excelled in athletics, in Prince George's County, Spencer caught the attention of many college football coaches. Letters poured into the Spencer mailbox with scholarship offers and the phone continually rang with excited coaches on the other end who described visions of Spencer playing football for their university. Instead, Spencer spurned every offer and opted to play football for a nearby semi-professional football team.

As he strolled through the mall, he found himself looking up at the Air Force recruiter's sign. To this day, Spencer can't recall the reason he opened the doors and walked in, but when he walked out a few hours later, he had enlisted in the Air Force.

"Amongst all of my friends, most of us didn't want to join the military, but it was one of those things that if you're going to join one (service), join the Air Force," said Spencer, who will soon retire as the Air Force's vice chief of staff after a 44-year career.

Understandably, Spencer's parents, Alfonzo and Selma, were shocked when their son broke the news.

"I had an Afro like you wouldn't believe, and I never shaved at all in high school. I fit the part (of a hippie)," Spencer said. "They thought I was a lost cause."

Spencer's parents didn't realize it at the time, but the seeds of their son's future success had been planted years before.

The tobacco farm

Spencer's father, Alfonzo, was raised in southwestern Virginia, about 20 miles south of Appomattox, where he and his siblings worked tirelessly on their father's tobacco farm. As Spencer described it, his father's only escape was to join the military. As soon as he was able, Alfonzo enlisted in the Army, where he was trained as a heavy equipment operator and was assigned to an Army post in Japan before the Korean War.

When the war began, Alfonzo deployed to Korea, and one day, while driving a bulldozer to the town of Yechon, Korea, Alfonzo somehow fell underneath the machine. During the fall, his left hand was caught in the gears, causing severe injuries. Alfonzo was stranded for several days before being rescued; his hand became infected, eventually causing gangrene. He fell into a coma and was shipped back to Japan, where he was put in an iron lung and doctors were forced to amputate his injured hand.

Unlike many service members at the time, Alfonzo was allowed to remain on active duty and was reassigned to Forest Glenn Annex, near Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., and worked with military doctors in prosthetics. During this time, Alfonzo received a rudimentary prosthetic hook that restored some of the abilities he'd lost when his hand was amputated. Despite the loss of his hand, Alfonzo didn't let the disability impede him from carrying out his duties as a Soldier and from fixing things around the house.

"I wish I were as talented as he was, in terms of the things he could do," Spencer said. "He was a mechanic, a carpenter, a plumber -- he could fix anything."

It was during this time that Spencer, still a child, first noticed his father's uncompromising work ethic. Alfonzo left the house every morning before sunrise at 5 o'clock to work his Army job, and then headed to the base's NCO club, where he worked a second job, and didn't make it home until well after midnight.

"There were many days where I never saw him," Spencer said. "That work ethic really wore off on me and not by accident. We had to wash cars and cut the grass. He wasn't mean, but he was disciplined. Even though our house was in Southeast Washington and in a tough neighborhood, our house looked good compared to all the other houses there. He taught us to work."

In fact, Spencer even spent his summers on his grandfather's tobacco farm, where he and his brothers, like their father before them, worked the fields.

Instilled with his father's determination, Spencer was on a plane to Lackland Air Force Base, San Antonio, just a couple days after he broke the news of his enlistment to his unsuspecting parents.

Back on the field

Spencer enjoyed his work in the Air Force, but his connection to football wasn't severed when he left his semi-pro team and donned the Air Force uniform.

As a young Airman, Spencer played on his squadron's intramural flag football team. During one game, his team was having trouble stopping opposing defensive linemen. When his team huddled up to strategize, one of Spencer's teammates, frustrated with the opposing players, yelled the N-word in a curse-filled tirade.

Spencer, one of the only African-American players on the team, was so shocked he did not know how to react.

"I literally froze and was hurt by that, because I was in the Air Force and you think that stuff doesn't happen here," he said. "He will never understand how much that hurt. It cut through me to hear him use that word in that way and almost look through me as if I wasn't even there."

Spencer's teammates admonished the player for using the word, and the game's referee, an active-duty NCO, ejected the player from the game and had him report to his first sergeant. The following day, at work and across the base, players on both sides of the ball apologized to Spencer for what had happened - including the offending player.

"That's one of those moments in your life you never forget," Spencer said.

As a young buck sergeant with a wife and two children, Spencer was nearing the end of his first enlistment while stationed at Charleston Air Force Base, South Carolina, and struggling with the decision of whether or not to re-enlist. But football wasn't through with him yet.

Out of the blue, Spencer crossed paths with Clemson University's head football coach, who offered him a scholarship -- he could play the sport he loved and receive a college education.

"I couldn't see myself picking up and going to college with a wife and two kids. I couldn't think of where we were going to live, how we'd afford groceries and medical care," he said. "I just couldn't see it, so I told him I couldn't do it. But I promised myself that when I came up on my next re-enlistment at eight years, I was going to have a college degree and a plan to get out."

Remaining committed to his goal, Spencer dedicated himself to education, and, in 1979, received his Bachelor of Science degree in industrial engineering technology from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.

Spencer was stationed at Pope Air Force Base, North Carolina, when the last days of his enlistment were quickly approaching. He was ready to see what life outside of the Air Force offered, when a chief master sergeant presented him with the idea of pursuing officer training school.

Spencer said he thought it was a long shot to be accepted into OTS, but despite his doubts, he applied anyway. To his surprise, he was accepted and would soon be returning to a familiar place to become an officer.

Becoming an officer

A year later, in 1980, Spencer was a distinguished graduate from OTS at Lackland AFB and became a comptroller officer. The hard work and determination his father taught him would continue to play a significant part in his life, but the realization years earlier that the Air Force still struggled with racial issues would shape the leader he'd become.

"I have really tried to bend over backwards to make sure everyone is treated appropriately; everyone is mentored the same, everyone gets the same opportunities to progress if they have the talent, drive and initiative," he said. "Everywhere I've gone, I've tried to have a diverse office because I personally think diversity is strength and results in better decisions and a stronger organization."

During more than 30 years as an Air Force officer, Spencer has led the charge in conserving resources and efficient spending at every assignment he's had, from group commander to where he now sits as the Air Force's vice chief of staff.

During the three years he's served as the Air Force's second officer in command, Spencer has introduced several initiatives to further cultivate an innovative and cost-saving culture throughout the service.

"I believe that part of our jobs as leaders is not to just consume resources, but consume them in the most efficient and effective way we can," Spencer said. "For a long time, there was a notion that we're warfighters and our job is to fight wars and it doesn't matter how much it costs. I don't agree with that; I don't think they're mutually exclusive. I think you can be a strong warfighter as well as a smart consumer of resources."

One such program was the Airmen Powered by Innovation initiative, which charged Airmen to submit cost-saving ideas that could be implemented to save money that could then be used elsewhere. In just one month, May 2013, Airmen submitted more than 11,000 ideas to the program, resulting in millions of dollars in savings.

"Everywhere I go, Airmen tell me how much money they've saved and their ideas," he said. "Not only have we saved a lot of money, but to watch the ideas flowing in has been incredible."

As tirelessly as Spencer has worked at improving the fiscal responsibility in the Air Force, his true passion has been in ensuring Airmen treat each other with dignity and respect. Spencer's memory of that day on the football field when his teammate bellowed the N-word remains as vivid as ever, but while some might let that incident inspire hate, Spencer has turned it into a positive force.

In 2013, Spencer introduced Every Airman Counts, an initiative aimed at ensuring Airmen treat each other respectfully and at fostering communication between Airmen and senior leaders about preventing sexual assault.

"You shouldn't look at a person and see them as someone you can take advantage of, but as wingmen and wingwomen and how you help and support each other," Spencer said.

A lasting legacy

Although Spencer will soon retire, his legacy will live on in the form of the Gen. Larry O. Spencer Innovation Award that was unveiled by Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James in late June. The award will annually recognize Airmen who come up with creative and efficient ways to save money and time.

"The award is new, but what's not new is the laser focus on innovation and the passion that General Spencer has brought to us in many ways," James said. "General Spencer has put much of his personal time into innovation and efficiency."

Today, Spencer's passion is the Air Force and its Airmen, but there are times, occasionally, when he can't help but think back to his first passion -- football. And even though the thought of donning a Clemson Tiger uniform and racing onto Memorial Stadium's field in front of 81,000 screaming fans is exhilarating, he has no regrets about walking through the Air Force recruiter's door 44 years ago, when so many of America's youth would not do the same.