The undaunted Spencer Ambler
There was a day in the middle 1950s when Spencer Ambler betrayed his instinct and agreed to join his friends at the Silver Grill Restaurant in Chanute. “All the kids said, ‘Let’s go to the Silver Grill,’” remembered Ambler. “I said, ‘No, I don’t want to go.’” But his friends persisted: “You’re with us, it’ll be fine.” And so he went.
Ambler was a good student, quiet, a top athlete, the vice president of his class, and the only African-American male in his grade. He knew, on a cellular level, what his white friends couldn’t have been expected to know. And when they walked through the front door of the restaurant, the teenagers were met by an employee of the Silver Grill, who gave voice to a warning that Ambler had heard echoing in this thoughts long before he ever set foot on cafe property. ‘We’ll serve these guys,” the man said, “but we won’t serve him.’
“You don’t say anything when you’re that age,” remembered Ambler, “you just leave.”
MORE THAN 60 years later, Spencer Ambler — still in possession of his same broad shoulders and slim, athletic build — stood in front of a crowd of admirers in the new student center at Allen Community College. Among the crowd were a number of those same classmates from Chanute High, friends from the Silver Grill days, who’d traveled more than 20 miles and across six decades to see their old ally honored. Ambler’s family was there, too: Helen, his wife of 52 years. His brother-in-law, Bill. His youngest sister. A nephew. Two nieces, one who’d flown in from Denver just that morning.
ACC board chairman Ken McGuffin took to the podium and began to list Spencer’s many accomplishments. Husband. Father. Army staff sergeant. Spencer Ambler has dedicated his life to service above self... Postmaster — one of the few African-Americans in the state to hold that position. Church deacon. The list went on and on. Vice president of the area NAACP. Great-grandfather. And he has served as a devoted board of trustee member at Allen Community College for 31 years. When he finishes this term, it will be 32 years. And it is a distinct honor that the board of trustees unanimously voted to...
And with that Allen Community College dedicated to its longest-serving trustee the Spencer Ambler Board Room, a glass-encircled, jewel box of a room, whose edifice will likely outlast the majority of the people in the crowd that day and whose name will be synonymous with Spencer Ambler for as long as the campus continues to attract students.
As for the Silver Grill? It folded in 1968.
IF THERE’S a friendlier man in Iola than Spencer Ambler, or a more charismatic couple than Spencer and Helen, or a family more deserving of biographical attention — for the substance of their character and for their years of service to this community — it’s unclear who that would be.
The Road from Nowata
The Amblers arrived in Chanute from Nowata, Okla., in 1938. Spencer was born the following year. His father worked as a laborer at the Ash Grove Cement Company, except during the war when he joined the countless other men from southeast Kansas who poured into the ammunition plant in Parsons. Spencer’s mother was a stay-at-home mom, who oversaw her own arsenal of seven children.
But it wasn’t just the Silver Grill. African-Americans during these years were prevented from dining in a number of area restaurants. The swimming pool was segregated. The movie theater on Main Street. Various clothing boutiques. And yet Spencer never seemed to let it rattle his even keel, and, in his entire life, he’s never held a grudge. It may have helped that he was popular, that he had a solid group of friends, and that he was a star athlete from the jump.
Earlier this week, bent over her kitchen table, Helen, a natural archivist, resurrected from a pile of papers a news clipping from the time Spencer was in the eighth grade. This young man, wrote the reporter, is busy shattering all the school records: he broad-jumped 20’ 6”, high-jumped 5’ 9.5”, he ran the 100-yard dash in 10.7 seconds.
And Spencer only improved in high school. He was a standout in football, in basketball, in track. His older brothers were great athletes, too. But, in this respect, Spencer was the lucky one. The rules changed only very shortly before Spencer entered CHS. “The only thing blacks could do up to that point,” said Ambler, “was run track. They couldn’t play football or basketball — no contact sports. But, you see, every town in southeastern Kansas used to have a black basketball team.” And so the older Ambler boys wore the colors of the Chanute Tigers.
“They were allowed to play in the gyms,” said Helen, who grew up in Iola and remembers cheering on her own hometown Green Dragons. “But they could only have the gyms on Saturdays. Which, hey, we thought was the best time anyway.”
By Spencer’s senior year, he’d earned a football scholarship but his chance at college athletics was torpedoed when he injured his knee late in the season. And so he did what so many of his generation did: he joined the United States Army, and in 1958 he said goodbye to Chanute.
Black, White, and Green
Alternating between stations in the U.S. and Korea, Spencer flourished in the military. He made a host of new friends. But this was the late-50s and early-60s; the Civil Rights movement hadn’t yet come into full flower; and it was here, in the service, that Spencer would have his eyes opened to the real hostility that boils at the heart of race prejudice. “I was stationed with black guys from the south and white guys from the south,” recalled Spencer, “and it was amazing the dislike they had for each other, and yet they didn’t even know one another. They just couldn’t stand to be in the same room. For me, coming from Chanute, where I had so many good white friends, I simply couldn’t understand that.”
A Case Study in the Intrinsic Stupidity of Racism; or, the perils of driving while racist
“My brother, now he was about your complexion — sandy hair, green eyes, real light skin. When he had his hat on, you almost couldn’t tell he was black. Well, we were [stationed] up in Fort Riley and my car broke down and he said ‘Let’s go home.’ I said, ‘Nah, I’m not going to go home.’ He said, ‘Let’s go home.’ I said, ‘How are we going to get home?’ He said, ‘Let’s hitchhike.’ I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ Well, we ended up hitchhiking.
“So we got out there and a car stopped and the guy said, ‘I’ll take you,’ pointing to my brother, ‘but I’m not taking that nigger.’ And so my brother got in the car and left me standing there. I said, ‘Oh, no, he did not just—,’ and so now I’m pissed.” Helen, who was sitting next to Spencer at the kitchen table, let out a loud laugh. Spencer continued. “Well, he only went up about a hundred yards but when he got out he was just laughing his butt off.”
To Old Friends
SPENCER: “I met some good friends when I was in the military, I really did. Some days I wonder where some of them are, because we did some things that were, well, unbelievable.”
REGISTER: “Would you like to mention any of those things now?”
SPENCER [looking at Helen]: “No, I don’t believe I would.”
A toast to Johnny Gore
“Well, OK — there was this one guy, I’ll never forget his name. Johnny Gore. He was the type of guy, whenever we got paid, the sergeant gave him a three-day pass — automatically — because Johnny Gore was going to get drunk and disappear for awhile. ... Well, one time, we were in Hartford, Conn., drinking and having a good time. We all had our uniforms on, six or seven of us. And so Johnny Gore, he went up to the bar and he said, real loud, ‘When Johnny Gore drinks, everybody drinks!’ And people thought, well, Johnny Gore is buying them a drink. And so they ran up to the bar and got a drink. But then he said, ‘When Johnny Gore pays, everybody pays!’ Well, after that, we about had the damndest fight.
“I tell Helen: ‘I wonder where some of them are, I wonder what happened to Johnny Gore.’”
Helen > California
Spencer’s last duty station was at Travis Air Force Base, in California, and after receiving his discharge in 1965, he went to work unloading barges for the Tidewater Oil Company in Vallejo. He also took part-time work as a bartender at a club in that same beach town. He was young, single, and he had every intention of remaining on the West Coast.
REGISTER: “How long were you in California?”
SPENCER: “Not long. Because, see, I came home on vacation and saw Helen.”
The two clicked from the start. Helen was eight years older than Spencer, but so what. “You bastards have been getting young women for ages,” laughed Helen. “What’s the difference?” She’d been married once before. She had two kids. But the couple met up every night. They played cards. They went out. They had a ball.
“And so I called out to work,” remembered Spencer, “and I said, ‘I know I had two weeks’ vacation, but can you give me another week and I’ll be back?’ After three weeks, I said, ‘Give me another week, then I’ll be back.’”
Spencer wanted Helen to marry him and come to California. Certainly not, Helen said. Her life was in Kansas. She didn’t want to go to California. The two argued back and forth.
“Finally, she said, ‘I’ll tell you what’ — this was in December — she said, ‘I’ll give you until Christmas Day.’ I said, ‘Christmas Day?’ She said, ‘Yes, you can come back Christmas Day. If you’re not here Christmas Day, forget about it.’ I said, ‘Are you kidding me?!’”
This was in 1966. Spencer was approaching 30 and he was in love, and so he agreed.
“So, I got everything taken care of. I left California on Christmas Eve. I was driving, and I got to Long Beach, and there was a sailor hitchhiking, and I said, ‘Where are you going?’ He said, ‘I know you’re probably not going to get that way, but I’m going to Wichita, Kansas.’ I said, ‘Are you kidding me?’ I said, ‘I’ll tell you what, you get in, keep me company, and I’ll drop you off at your front door.’ He said, ‘OK!’
“Well, we got to Flagstaff, Arizona, and he said, ‘Mister, you can let me out here — I’m sure not in that big of a hurry.’ I was driving 80 mph coming home, easy. I got to Piqua, Kansas, and I was so tired I thought I was lost because my point of reference was the smokestack at the [Lehigh] cement plant. But sometimes they shut down in the winter, and you couldn’t see any smoke coming out and I didn’t have any idea where I was. I was that tired.”
But he made it. He arrived at Helen’s door at 3:30 p.m. Christmas Day.
In California, he’d bought a bottle of good Scotch for his brother, which he transported the 2,000 miles to Kansas. When he exited the car, after driving all day and all night, he dropped the bottle and it smashed on the ground.
“That was in December of 1966,” recalled Spencer, “and we got married in January.”
The Best Move
Spencer’s father died of a heart attack at age 57, less than a year after the couple’s wedding. “But he was happy because I married Helen,” said Spencer, who was the last one in his family to tie the knot. “He wasn’t as concerned about me after that. He said it was the best move I’d ever made.” Spencer reached out and gripped Helen’s arm. “And I feel it’s the best move I ever made, too.”
The couple wed in 1967. At that point, the Civil Rights struggle was in high gear. Birmingham, ’63. The Civil Rights Act, ’64. The march from Selma to Montgomery, ’65. Martin Luther King would be assassinated just three years later.
Now, Iola in the 1950s and ’60s wasn’t Mobile, by any means, but neither was it free of its own share of racial hatred. Helen remembered accompanying a white co-worker to L & M Truck Stop during this period.
“She said, ‘Let’s go get some coffee,’” recalled Helen, “and I says, ‘No, they’ve never wanted blacks out there before, so I’m not going to go now.’ She said, ‘Oh, come on.’ I said, ‘Well, OK, but if there’s any friction, I’m leaving.’ Now, I can get mouthy, but I’m smart enough to know that if there’s more of you than there is of me, I’m not going to make a scene. Well, I went in and got ready to sit down, and the guy comes up and says, ‘We don’t serve niggers.’ And I said, ‘That’s fine, there’s somebody that will take my money,’ and I just got up. Well, of course, I was pissed. But I left, because there was no point in me arguing back.”
“But we had this great lady in Chanute,” said Spencer. “She was the head of the [area] NAACP, and she had a comeback for that, because somebody had said that to her one time. They’d said, ‘Well, we don’t serve niggers here.’ And she said, ‘Oh, I’m so relieved, because I don’t eat them.’ This lady was sharp, really sharp. Her name was Roberta Thuston. She’s the one that pushed and pushed and pushed for the swimming pool in Chanute to be integrated, and it was sad, because the only kid that ever drowned in that swimming pool was her son.” Thaddaeus Thuston, 11.
From Clerk to
The spring after he was married, Spencer joined the United States Postal Service. But first he had to pass the required driver’s exam in Fort Scott. The exam was scheduled for July 5. The day before was a holiday.
“Well, my brother had a Mustang and I had a Mustang,” recalled Spencer. “So, for fun, on the Fourth of July, we got out there and we got side by side in the street. Young guy stuff, you know. Well, we took off, and I hit the intersection and dropped into second gear and hit some loose gravel and lost it and just started spinning and wrapped my car around a tree, almost in a U-shape. And so I had to go to the hospital. ... I was knocked out.
“Anyway, I still had to take the driver’s test the next day. So I got out of the hospital and had a patch on my head, my ribs were taped up. And Helen had been to the dentist’s that morning, and so she had this bloody gauze in her mouth. So, now, I didn’t have my car, so I had to drive another car and this thing didn’t have power steering and the rear end was all jerky. And I was trying to take this driver’s test and Helen was in the backseat bouncing around with gauze in her mouth, and that guy probably looked at us and thought, ‘What kind of crazy folks are these?’
“But I passed, and that was in July of 1967.”
Spencer would go on to work as a clerk and a carrier at the Iola Post Office before being named postmaster in 1982, a position he held until his retirement in ’98.
Spencer was offered jobs in larger cities but he was never really tempted. “My sister lived in New York and she used to say, ‘How in the world can you stand Iola, Kansas?’ But I tell people all the time: Iola is the best kept secret in the world. Helen and I, being in Iola, really have been able to do just about anything we’ve wanted to do. People accept us. And not because of what we do or anything, but because of who we are — we’re people people.”
A Spirit of Love
And yet it’s perhaps difficult for a modern sensibility to comprehend how the baseless stupidity of racism, and the violence that so often accompanies it, wouldn’t engulf its victims in anger or else drown them in tears, but there may be something approaching a philosophy of living contained in a newspaper article that Helen encountered as a little girl, the contents of which she can still recite by heart.
“I can remember one time somebody saying something hurtful to me at school,” said Helen. “I came home and was mad. Now, my dad was a reader, and he showed me something in the newspaper, it was the Capper’s newspaper. It said, ‘Great men cultivate a spirit of love. Only small men cultivate a spirit of hatred. I have learned that the assistance given the weak makes the one who gives it strong. And I have resolved that I will permit no one, no matter the color of his skin, to narrow and degrade my soul by making me hate him.’
“My dad said, ‘When you let a person know that something bothers you, they have you right where they want you. You’re in their control. Don’t let that happen.’ I still have the piece. I cut it out of the paper that day.”
“If someone doesn’t like Helen,” laughed Spencer, “she tells them: ‘Well, if you don’t like me, you’re missing a treat.’”
He went on. “Overall, life has been good. It really has. We tend to be pretty positive people. This last year, though, has been a rough one for Helen. Last February, one morning, she was hurting and couldn’t get out of the bed. Just out of the blue.”
“I probably should have been dead years ago,” said Helen, who has survived both uterine and breast cancer, and who was recently fitted for braces on her legs, the result of apparent spinal deterioration. “So, you know, I could be pissed off at the world. But this man” — she slaps Spencer’s arm — “is the most positive person that I have ever been around. We encourage one another. Because, you know, we all get down sometimes. He’ll say, ‘We’ll get through this thing together, Helen.’ If I have trouble putting these things on, he comes and gets down on his knees and helps me get my boots on.”
“I tell her, ‘I’m down on my knees for you,’” said Spencer. “I sing that song, ‘Baby, I’m down on my knees for you.’”
“We can still entertain one another,” said Helen. “And we can read something and sit here and debate it. And, listen, do you know that when I married Spencer, he was just the quietest thing, he didn’t talk.”
“No,” said Spencer, “but I had to learn to talk in self-defense.”
Helen flashed a smile bigger than all of California. “Now, do you believe that?”