La Cañada Flintridge lost Dave Spence on Tuesday.
The devoted city councilman and six-time mayor died from an apparent heart attack at his home, according to a statement from the city. Spence, 80, was found Tuesday morning.
Spence loved LCF, and, judging by a quarter-century worth of election results, the city loved him.
In March, he was re-elected for a seventh term as a member of the City Council, on which he’d served since 1992, including those record six turns as mayor: “In my opinion, La Cañada Flintridge is one of the greatest cities in this state,” Spence said during his last campaign.
“Dave Spence’s love for our community was truly unparalleled in our history,” wrote Steve Del Guercio, also a former mayor and longtime friend of Spence, in an email. “Seemingly ubiquitous, he touched the lives of generations of La Cañadans with his kindness, goodwill and dedication to helping others.”
A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Wednesday, May 31, at La Cañada Presbyterian Church.
As of Wednesday, City Council members had not begun to process how they might fill his seat, but legally they have 60 days to either appoint someone or call a special election to fill the vacancy, according to City Clerk Tania Moreno. “The City Council will fill Dave Spence’s seat,” wrote Pat Anderson, CEO of the LCF Chamber of Commerce, in an email. “But no one can fill his shoes.”
Spence enthusiastically cultivated influence that extended beyond LCF, giving the city a voice on numerous regional government agencies. He held positions with organizations that ranged from the California Contract Cities Association and the San Gabriel Valley Council of Governments, to the Greater Los Angeles County Vector Control District and the Los Angeles County Sanitation District.
“Seeing him dedicating that amount of time, it’s a good example and it also highlights what’s needed if you’re going to be effective from a City Council standpoint,” Councilman Jonathan Curtis said. “It’s also about regional, state and federal issues and really being engaged at those levels so we can protect our quality of life in La Cañada Flintridge.”
“He was,” current Mayor Michael Davitt said, “a real champion for our city.”
Just last weekend, Spence attended the California Contract Contract Cities Association’s annual seminar in Indian Wells, at which Davitt was sworn in as the group’s president — a title previously held by Spence.
“Dave was in good spirits all weekend,” Davitt said. “He played golf one day, and he was at all the dinners and educational sessions. He seemed to be just fine. It’s just quite a surprise, for sure.”
An only child, Spence was raised in Ohio by his mother, who was widowed when he was young, according to his longtime friend Sheri Morton. “He came from humble beginnings,” she said, adding that Spence had his first job at age 5, and that he spent much of his youth delivering newspapers, shoveling snow and mowing lawns.
His work ethic never faltered; he found a career in the pharmaceutical field, focusing on contact lenses when the technology was in its infancy. Just this week, on Monday, he attended a meeting in Los Angeles with fellow Councilman Len Pieroni, Davitt said.
In the 1950s, Spence met his wife, Alice, at Ohio Wesleyan University. In 1969, they moved to LCF, where they raised their sons, Steve and Andy.
“I’ve got to tell you, they were, great, great people,” said the Rev. Chuck Osburn of La Cañada Presbyterian Church, where Spence taught Sunday School to 3rd-graders for more than 30 years and also served as a deacon in the 1970s.
“They had a child who died, and Andy and Steve both have a mental impairment, and they raised those two young guys and gave them as much freedom as they could,” Osburn said. “I’ve seen families handling that become angry and resentful at God and at others, but the Spences handled it with grace and hope.”
And then, in the decade or so before she died in 2013, Alice Spence struggled with dementia.
“That was also really hard,” Osburn said. “But, again, [Dave Spence] handled that graciously. It was tough stuff, and he always seemed to handle it with grace and dignity, even when she was living in a home.
“In the midst of all of that, a lot of people would say, ‘That’s enough! I don’t have anything left over for anybody else.’ Or, ‘Whatever I have left over, I’m going to make sure to spend it on myself.’ But he was not one of those people; whatever was left over he used for his friends in the community.”
Richie Myers grew up just down the street from Spence’s home, where Myers and his brothers often would go swimming: “He was very generous,” Myers, 31, said. “We don’t have a pool and they had one so he let us do that. He was a chill guy, kind of like your grandpa you didn’t know you had.”
In an email, Pieroni said he was a freshman at La Cañada High School in the 1970s when he met Spence — “I knew him as Mr. Spence back then,” said Pieroni, who credits Spence with helping him acclimate to his role on City Council.
“I see him as a tremendously giving person,” Pieroni said.
In both of his successful City Council campaigns, Curtis joined Spence on the ballot, including last March, when he and Spence were re-elected with 2,665 and 2,565 votes, respectively.
“I got to know Dave fairly closely, having our campaigns go basically in parallel tracks,” said Curtis from London, where he received the news of Spence’s death via a message from Davitt. “After this last election, he had some of my [yard] signs that had been picked up, and I told him to go ahead and recycle mine. He said, ‘I’m saving mine.’ He was planning to re-run in four years, or at least he wasn’t going to foreclose on that possibility.”
During his historic tenure, Spence was integral in the movement to connect sewers through much of LCF. He also advocated for the building of the Town Center and for the city’s popular trail system. If not for him, LCF would not have Music in the Park each Sunday evening in summer.
“He was hoping to get lights on all the trees in the park,” Morton said. “We’d gone to Montrose for dinner, and they had lights up, and he said, ‘This looks really good. We should do that in La Cañada.’ So he added that to his list.”
Morton and her husband, David, spent a lot of time with Dave Spence and his fiancée, Jacky Hollingsworth. The couples made annual trips together, visiting wine country or other desirable locales in the state. A trip to Wyoming was in the works.
“He was a good listener,” said Morton, who will remember Spence’s love for travel, for red wine, for people. “He really listened to what people said and tried to act upon it.
“Part of his charm was that he was a rascal; he was not perfect. He was a real person. He tried to work with everyone. His phone went off all the time and he always answered it, it didn’t make a difference if he was at dinner with friends or wherever. He was like Les Tupper, Mr. La Cañada.”
As the news of Spence’s death reverberated, friends and former colleagues remembered Spence for his energy, his wisdom and his love for LCF.
“Still finding it hard to think of the world without Dave Spence in it,” wrote former Mayor Laura Olhasso in an email. “He was the definition of a public servant — giving his time and talent for the betterment of the community and its residents. LCF is a better place for his longtime leadership.”
“He was tireless in his efforts to serve the community,” Davitt said. “Doing it that long and dedicating himself to it like he did, the city became an extension of his family. His institutional knowledge can’t be duplicated.”
“Dave was a friend whom I admired greatly,” L.A. County Supervisor Kathryn Barger said in a statement.
“In addition to his deep love for his family, he truly cared about his city and was tireless in his efforts to ensure that the residents of La Cañada received the very best representation and service from their local government. He leaves a significant legacy and will be truly missed.”
Wrote state Sen. Anthony Portantino, another former LCF Mayor: “Dave was just one of those good guys who loved our community and he lit up like a firecracker when it was his turn to be mayor. He loved his children and our community. He will be missed by so many people whom he touched so positively.”
“The passing of Dave Spence is a great personal loss to me and a profound loss to the city, county and state,” the Chamber’s Anderson said. “His quiet but firm character together with his extensive knowledge and vast relationships enabled him to be a significant force in getting things done. While Dave may be gone from us here on Earth, his spirit will remain with us forever.”