Kellogg professor emeritus, NU alumnus dies at 87

Deborah Hirsch

Northwestern Prof. Emeritus Frank A. Spencer, aviation expert and role model to his students, died of heart failure Tuesday at Evanston Memorial Hospital. He was 87.

“He was clearly a mentor to a lot of students, and they were all passionate about aviation,” said Diana Marek, assistant director of the NU Transportation Center.

Spencer, a 1936 NU graduate, taught courses in collective bargaining and transportation policy and management at the Kellogg Graduate School of Management after retiring in 1973 as an American Airlines pilot.

“He was very effective as a teacher and much loved by his students,” said Frank Gellman, former director of the Transportation Center. “He devoted a lot of his time to their well-being and intellectual life.”

George Hamlin, a former student of Spencer’s and senior vice president of Global Aviation, said he picked up on Spencer’s enthusiasm for life and the airline industry while Spencer was his thesis adviser at NU.

“Frank was just a wealth of knowledge and contacts, plus he cared a great deal about his work, students and colleagues,” Hamlin said. “He taught me to be skeptical of some of the accepted wisdom of the business.”

Hamlin said Spencer, who flew Boeing 747s, also had an unexpected sense of humor underneath his calm demeanor.

“He was a quiet, mild-mannered man,” he said. “You wouldn’t pick him out as the captain of a wide-bodied plane.”

Spencer taught until 1978 when he took a position at the Transportation Center. He later established the William A. Patterson Endowed Chair in Transportation with a personal contribution of $100,000.

Among other gifts to the Transportation Center and Transportation Library, Spencer donated money for construction of the new transportation building. Marek said Spencer also left money in his will to be used for transportation student scholarships and research.

“Frank tried very hard throughout his life to leave his mark wherever he went,” Marek said. “When he came back to Northwestern, he was intent on doing something that would have a lasting effect.”

Spencer earned his pilots license while pursuing an undergraduate degree in economics at NU. In 1941 he received a doctorate in economics and air transportation from Princeton University.

During World War II, Spencer flew personnel and supplies from the United States to Europe and North Africa as a pilot with the Air Transport Association command.

He worked as a pilot for Trans World Airlines and American Airlines for more than 30 years and also served as a labor negotiator for the Airline Pilots Association, writing extensively on airline regulations and operations.

Spencer was well known and respected in the aviation industry; he was a member of the American Economic Association, the Transportation Research Board and past president of the Air Transportation Research International Forum.

Marek said Spencer “had the ear of the big guys” because he never had problems reaching top airline executives.

“He was at ease with all the people in the industry and equally respected by the labor, academic and business sides,” said David Greenberg, a former student and executive vice president of Korean Airlines.

In 1997 Spencer was awarded the Alumni Service Award from the NU Alumni Association for his services to the university.

“He was very loyal to his schools but probably most to Northwestern,” Marek said. “He has a strong connection both to Northwestern and Evanston.”

Hamlin visited Spencer at his house in March and said he found the professor concerned with e-mail problems and current events.

“He was mentally every bit as alert as I (was),” Hamlin said. “Right to the end, he was looking to the future and the impact of some of the proposed airline mergers.”

Spencer is survived by his wife, Catherine, and a sister, Mildred Snyder of Prescott, Ariz. His first wife, Gerry, preceded him in death.

Donations in Spencer’s memory may be made to the Frank A. Spencer Book Fund at the NU Transportation Library.

A memorial service will be held Wednesday at 2 p.m. at the Covenant United Methodist Church, 2123 Harrison St., in Evanston.