Preserving the Past, Informing the Future
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The small county bar, such as Middlesex, tends to produce, from time to time, a lawyer who, without effort or design, makes corporeal again the traditional dignity and the comfortable aspect of that unhurried country practice which so few remember and many regard with a vague nostalgia.
To such a man nature imparts her rare, homely wisdom, her generous humor and her infallible perception, but only as gifts to be made use of in the giving and to endure only in the sense of enrichment happily brought to others.
Such a man was Bertrand E. Spencer. Were he to speak, he would deny this; and were he to see these words written about himself he would no doubt be uneasy, with that quick and shrinking uneasiness that is the best evidence of a modest nature. His forthrightness and devotion to simplicity would recoil from the mildest eulogy.
It was my good fortune to be associated with him during the last ten years of his life. During all of that time he was State's Attorney for Middlesex County, having succeeded Ernest A. Inglis to that office upon the latter's elevation to the Superior Court bench.
He was one of those men, all too few, who look upon law not as a source of wealth but as a career dedicated to public service. His practice was close to the earth, among earthly people, but it was of an earthiness illumined at all times with the bright and warming sunshine of his enlightment.
In dealing with people's troubles and in transacting their affairs, he was not moved by economic status or creed or ancestry. His only measure of interest in a case was whether the cause was just. To him people were all alike. They were people under one God and humbly united in one common humanity. Toward them, in goodness or in sin, in righteousness or in crime, he felt a keen and understanding sympathy and a simple love. Toward them, when they came into collision with punitive law, he showed a generous tolerance which eased their misery.
He was a survivor of an age when the law was more personalized than it is today, when institutions had not made of it an efficient machine and when the character and personality of the lawyer and his personal contact with clients were given greater importance. In his office there was something of the atmosphere of the old fashioned law chamber with its oak furniture and iron safe, the comfortable rocker and the books sprawled about showing constant use. There was also the spirit of the old-fashioned office where the senior member acted as a mentor and out of his larger human experience would advise his junior associates not only in matters of law but also on problems of ethics and morality and social justice with which they were still insufficiently acquainted.
In commemorating our departed brethren, we are wont to tell something of their record and to point to their many accomplishments and successes. Yet these few tollings seem pathetically inadequate to show a man's oneness and integration with the many events through which he moved. The few needful facts we set down concerning Bert Spencer are not the measure of the man, for he will be known fully only to those who knew him here and he will be remembered best in the bright serenity of a June Sunday or the golden splendor of autumn in our Connecticut hills going about familiarly among his neighbors.
Born in Meriden, Connecticut, on April 15, 1884, Bert Spencer retained his loyalty to his native state during his fruitful lifetime. At Dartmouth he received his academic degree in 1906 and was there admitted to Phi Beta Kappa. Then, after a year's pause, he entered the University of Maine Law School and in 1910 became a bachelor of laws. He was admitted to practice that same year in Massachusetts and on June 10, 1911, became a member of the bar of Connecticut.
From that time on he served Connecticut and, in particular, the County of Middlesex. During his thirty years of practice his office was always in Middletown. In 1915 he was named clerk of the City Court, serving two years in that capacity. He was named prosecutor in 1917 and served until 1923. From 1918 until 1930 he acted as assistant to State's Attorney Ernest A. Inglis, and upon Judge Inglis' elevation to the Superior Court bench on December1, 1930, he became State's Attorney.
His participation in municipal affairs was always marked by a keen grasp of the fundamentals of government and an ability to solve problems of government. He drafted the consolidated city and town charter of Middletown which was adopted October 9, 1923. He became a member of the City Plan Commission and sought to bring order into a zoning situation which had grown haphazard through years of non-regulation.
For twelve years he served as member of the town school board and was chairman during the last several years. He was an active member of the Chamber of Commerce from its early days and was a director in 1935 and president in 1936.
Bert Spencer was a musician of exceptional ability and served as organist and choir director of the First Congregational Church of Middletown.
Among the organizations to which he belonged and which he served are the following: Connecticut State Bar Association: the Middlesex County Bar; the Middletown Bar Association, of which he had been president; the Middletown Building and Loan Association; the Middletown Savings Bank, as attorney and trustee; Apollo Lodge, Knights of Pythias, as member and past chancellor commander; St. John's Lodge, No. 2, A. F. and A. M.; the Rotary Club.
In his later years perhaps he felt a deep foreboding, a prescience that his time was narrowing, that his days were getting shorter. The hastening shadows and their suggestion of things undone and of many things to do troubled him perhaps with the same urgency expressed in this detached and unnamed stanza of Stevenson:
"The morning drum-call on my eager ear
Thrills unforgotten yet; the morning dew
Lies yet undried along my field of noon.
But now I pause at whiles in what I do
And count the bell, and tremble lest I hear
(My work untrimmed) and sunset gun too soon."
He now entered upon a more vigorous public life. He organized and became the first president of the Community Chest; he initiated the movement for a municipal finance board, which came into being after his death; he ran for mayor. Never a politician, he won the highest political office of his city shortly before his death, and was elected mayor of Middletown in October, 1940. That achievement is all the more remarkable when we recall that he was one of only two Republican mayors to be elected in Middletown in fourteen years.
He threw himself into his new work with fresh enthusiasm. Much had to be done. He busied himself with plans for reconstructing the city government. The pace of his work increased. To him it may have appeared that in the measure of time he had remaining he ought to accomplish everything possible before the gun sounded at sunset.
Winter came. His health, never too robust, had begun to falter. The strain and pressure of his work began to tell on him. His energies sank and the climb back became too steep. On the evening of January 23, 1941, he passed away in peace.
One is often tempted to speculate where the journey might have led had another road been taken. We may wonder, those of us who knew Bert Spencer best, what the world may have held for him had he ever made fuller use of those abundant talents which he had in music, the arts, and in letters. Had he chosen those things for his career he might conceivably have enjoyed a more tranquil life, a life in harmony with his sensitive nature and free of the conflict which is inevitable in the profession of law. For he was not a man who enjoyed conflict. He was a man of peace.
But he was militant and courageous in his desire to achieve peace, ready to fight injustice and prepared to sacrifice comfort and ease in a cause that was right. This is how we think of him, a brave soldier in this world of conflict who had been called from the wars at last, and who goes forward with his face to the sun, and unafraid.[footer.htm]