July 20, 1926 — November 22, 2018
Nancy Spencer died at age 92 on Thanksgiving morning, November 22, 2018, at her home in Boulder, Colorado, with loving family by her side.
Nancy was born July 20, 1926, in Monroe, Wisconsin, the youngest of four children of Clair Lafayette Stillman and Jewell Deane Mitchell Stillman. She graduated from high school in Wauwatosa in 1944 and attended Lawrence College in Appleton, Wisconsin, graduating with a degree in English.
It was at Lawrence that friends arranged a blind date with fellow student, Brookes Spencer. They married on December 26, 1948. Their early married life was spent in Alpena, Michigan, before relocating to Madison, Wisconsin, where their four children were born.
Passionate to create a peaceful, just world for children, Nancy began her lifelong activism in peace and social justice causes including UNICEF and nuclear disarmament, later founding a WILPF chapter.
The family moved to Corvallis in 1963, where Brookes began his career teaching at OSU and they bought their family home on Oak Creek. Many travels ensued, including a year in Denmark, but they always returned to their beloved hills, fields and creek west of Corvallis.
Nancy was a devoted, loving and gentle mom with a deep, lifelong love of family. She also felt and shared with her children a deep love for the natural world, delighting in identifying wildflowers, trees and birds. Her birdfeeder at her window brought her joy right up until the last hours of her life. Language, literature and poetry were other passions. Friendships were at the heart of her life from beginning to end; she connected with people with such immediacy that chance encounters often led to lifelong, deep friendships.
Nancy followed music through life like the tempting smell of baking bread. A lifelong flute and recorder player, she taught lessons and performed classical and early music into her 90s. She also taught herself to play the musical saw as a teenager after she saw a neighbor’s out of town guest play this unique instrument. She played saw in an all-women’s band she organized in college, and for decades thereafter as a novelty at local events and schools.
That changed in 1974, when she was invited as a guest artist to play the saw at Expo '74, the World’s Fair in Spokane, Washington. There, she discovered the joys of playing Folk Music with the likes of Utah Phillips, who invited her to share the stage to add the saw’s sounds to his rousing songs and stories of union organizing, hobo life, and life in the Old West. They remained friends and fellow performers until his death in 2008, and he was instrumental in introducing her to a myriad of other folk performers.
She began opening the family home to traveling folk musicians, founded the Corvallis Folklore Society and began her work as a folk concert producer, playing a vibrant role in the lively Corvallis folk music scene. When on stage, her classical music training, her skill on the saw, her abiding love of people and their ways, her humble nature and her quirky sense of humor all combined to delight her audiences.
In 1980, she and Brookes separated, and three years later she moved to Ashland to be near daughter Lisa as grandchildren began to arrive. She quickly became an integral part of the community that was her home for the next 33 years. She operated a child care center in her home, founded the Ashland Folk Music Club, produced scores of concerts and continued to perform with various early, classical and folk ensembles. A weekly Folk Music Show radio host for many years on what is now JPR, she also was an active member and volunteer with Peace House, UCC church, WILPF, and the North Mountain Park Nature Center, always gathering new friends along the way.
Her beloved home on North Mountain Avenue was a home away from home for musicians from near and far, extended family and friends, and vagabonds of every sort. The unpredictable nature of Ashland trains along the tracks next to her home was immortalized by Judy Fjell in her song "At Nancy’s House." Scores of Ashlanders say they still look at that little grey house whenever they cross the tracks and think, "There’s Nancy’s house." And perhaps they hum a bit of the tune.
Nancy moved to Boulder, Colorado, the week after her 90th birthday to be near her daughter Talia. She kept contact with old friends, and also made new and important friends even in the last few months of life. Her abiding love of family, people, music, poetry, books, birds and flowers eased her way through the transitions of her final two years.
Nancy was preceded in death by her parents; and siblings.
She is survived by her children, Lisa Spencer (Karen Wennlund), Jamie Spencer, Tad Spencer (Jennifer Combs), and Talia Spencer (BJ Brown); and by her former husband, Brookes Spencer. Additional survivors are grandchildren, Chauncey, Amalia, and Jewell Kieley, Isabel Enns, Jack O’Connor, Avery and Grayson Klages; seven great-grandchildren (with an eighth on the way); beloved nephews, Andy Stillman and Stuart Spencer; and generations of cousins.
Donations in Nancy's memory may be made to Peace House of Ashland (peacehouse.net), Sisters of the Road (sistersoftheroad.org), North Mountain Park Nature Center of Ashland (NorthMountainPark.org) or Trail Winds Hospice of Boulder (trailwindshospice.org).
A small memorial service filled with music and stories was held on November 25th in Boulder, Colorado. A gathering in her honor will be held in Ashland in the afternoon of what would have been her 93rd birthday, July 20, 2019, at the Unitarian Center, 87 4th St., Ashland. The family envisions this gathering as part memorial service, part celebration of Life, and part Nancy Spencer Tribute Concert. All who loved her are warmly invited to attend.