Bobby Spencer’s life had many facets.
“He’s like an onion — you just keep peeling back the layers,” said magician Wes Iseli, who described Spencer as his “magic grandpa.”
Life-long Scottsville resident Robert Spencer — an educator, entertainer, minister, writer and historian — died May 28. He was 84.
He was born Oct. 30, 1935, to the late Kirkwood Alexander Spencer and Louise Spencer, and attended Scottsville High School, the University of Richmond and Wake Forest University.
For 34 years, Spencer was a staff member at Fork Union Military Academy, where he was chairman of the English department and Special Services Officer.
“Some of his former students would even call him at Christmas time and important times in their lives and let him know what was going on,” his cousin Pat Pitts said.
“He told me it was the happiest time of his life, working at the academy,” said Evelyn Edson, president of the Scottsville Museum.
Spencer served as Mayor and Town Councilor of Scottsville, and helped found the Scottsville Museum and the Scottsville Council for the Arts and Nature. He was a fixture at the JABA Scottsville Community Senior Center.
He was involved in the arts, especially theater and music, and directed multiple community productions. When he was young, he served as usher at the Victory Hall Theater and introduced shows.
But Spencer’s real love was magic and entertaining, his family and friends said.
Also known as “The Amazing Kirkwood” or “Kirkwood the Magician,” Spencer performed his magic shows at county fairs, schools, churches, community centers and small town theaters throughout the southeast.
“He often emceed different events here in our little town, and from my earliest recollection he did not mind being in front of the public and being on the stage,” Pitts said. “In fact, I think he enjoyed that and relished the opportunity to be in front of folks. He was quite at home on the stage.”
Pitts said Spencer would perform tricks on him and Pitts’ brother, Billy, including an act with a small, blank writing slate.
“He would hold it up to our ears and we could hear someone writing on the slate, and then he would pull it away from our ears and something that would have been written on it like ‘Hello, Pat,’” he said. “To this day, I don’t know how he pulled that one off.”
Iseli said he didn’t realize how renowned Spencer was until he took a trip to Colon, Michigan, known as the magic capital of the world, and was eating at a diner with his wife when he saw a photo of Spencer on the wall.
“It’s crazy because it’s a restaurant that has a hundred famous magicians’ photos on the wall, and the booth we sat at, his picture was above ours,” he said. “We didn’t notice it ‘till halfway through the meal, we’re like, ‘Holy crap, that’s Bobby.’”
Spencer supported Iseli in his career as a magician and was someone that Iseli shared stories with from his work travels. Iseli mailed newsletters from the road back to Scottsville.
“He had a stack of them on his couch when I would come to visit, and he had marked them because he wanted to ask me questions about certain articles or certain shows that I’ve done,” Iseli said. “He was always marking stuff with Post-it notes to keep his learning going. It was pretty awesome, he never stopped learning.”
Spencer also was an ordained Baptist minister, and he had served numerous churches in the region as an interim and guest minister.
Katie McKown, a former pastor of Scottsville Baptist Church, said one of her favorite memories of Spencer was his participation in the church’s intergenerational Sunday School class, where he quickly bonded with young adults in their 20s.
“I smile when I think of Bobby,” she said. “He reached out to millennials and in turn they reached out to him. It was a gift to see Bobby love and be loved.”
He managed to surprise McKown on occasion, she said.
“Within the first month of my ministry at Scottsville, the church was part of a Christmas parade,” she said. “Bobby dressed up as a nutcracker and marched alongside us.”
He was heavily involved in the church, serving as the long-time historian and participating in Sunday School class parties, yard sales, mission events and performing magic in the parsonage living room.
“He called me his ‘fellow spook’ because we shared a birthday,” McKown said. “It was a privilege to be Bobby’s pastor.”
Scottsville Mayor Nancy Gill said he was an important part of the social and spiritual fabric of the town.
“Just not seeing him on an everyday basis, not seeing him walking around town and not being able to chat with him — I think that’s the biggest loss,” she said.
A memorial service celebrating Spencer’s life will be held at a later date once everyone can safely gather together, his family said.