I met Barry Spencer more than 25 years ago on the downtown shuttle bus. I saw this bearded man wearing a natty bespoke three-piece suit and carrying a paper bag lunch. I puzzled over what kind of career he might have with that combination. A frugal lawyer? An environmentally conscious banker? I found out that he was checking me out as well. He wondered what kind of crazy job I would have, to allow me to dress as I did, in vintage hats and clothes from the 1940s. Speculating about each other’s careers was an odd beginning to a long friendship.
If you bought a jacket or pair of pants at W.A. King on Figueroa Street, the tailor, Barry Spencer, would come downstairs from his loft workspace to measure and pin. He went about his work efficiently and quickly; you might not have noticed his British accent or experienced his dry sense of humor.
Barry Spencer was what we call a quiet working man. Growing up in England, he led an idyllic childhood; then the life of a typical mod teenager — riding his scooter, listening to music at the Cavern, and waiting all night to be the first to buy Beatle boots, and apprenticing as a tailor at the age of 15. He left England behind for adventure, visiting France and immigrating to Australia, then making his way to America.
I guess you could say that Barry was somewhat of a loner, even a bit of a curmudgeon, with a quiet but creative hobby. With few friends to spend time with, after work, he hurried home to begin his real work. He researched authentic clothing and uniforms; he studied photographs of famous people and worked in earnest for hundreds of hours on his miniature sculptures. From a small wire armature, he built up features with a putty-like material and then carved away everything that “wasn’t the man.” He worked late into the night with tiny brushes making minute marks.
He rarely exhibited or sold these pieces, but he raced against the clock to finish each new series: Recurring vertigo and other problems finally evolved into a devastating diagnosis of spinocerebellar ataxia in 1990, which meant dealing with a progressive disease that had no treatment and no cure. We watched him slowly lose his ability to work and drive, ride his three-wheeled bike, lose the small motor control in his hands, and eventually the ability to walk, speak, and swallow easily. Some sculptures in progress were lost when his symptoms progressed too quickly. But what we rarely saw him lose was his indomitable spirit and sense of humor. More Santa Barbarians complain about the weather than Barry about his life situation.
He was able to create many historic American and European soldiers, and sports figures, and eventually to complete his pièce de résistance, his Beatles series — recreating miniature album covers in three dimensions. Two of his Beatles works were on display during the LoveLoveLove Beatles concert weekend, thanks to the Granada Theatre and the Dream Foundation. Barry was hoping that he could attend the concert and meet George Martin, and that eventually the Liverpool Beatles museum would accept his figures for its collection, but that was not to be. Those concert attendees viewing the Beatles sculptures were not aware that the creator of those figures had left the earth only hours before.
Throughout his difficult days, Barry was exposed to more caring and concern than many of us would experience in a lifetime. His gratefulness for everything transformed and deepened his personality. Early on, Alex King, his employer, kindly assisted with getting him medical care and his citizenship; when he had trouble with stairs, the late Hugh Petersen, the beneficent owner of La Arcada Court, purchased an elevator chair to get Barry to his loft office. The City of Santa Barbara Housing Authority provided him with dignity through his own independent living situation, and even two people who barely knew him, Jan and Mary Lynn Rohrbach, stepped in and purchased a new three-wheeled bike when his was stolen. More recently, Assisted Nursing Care helped out, Cottage Hospital cared for him when he fell, and the Buena Vista Rehabilitation team helped him with his injury. And in his last two weeks, the extraordinary caregivers at Sarah House cradled him with nonstop loving kindness; his doctors Dr. Michael Bordofsky and Dr. Daniel Greenwald, and Assisted Living Visiting Nurses provided him with compassionate medical care, and the Volunteer Hospice team led by Kristin Hoffman kept a caring and mindful vigil. His loving sister Maddy Page, who visited him in his last days, and his mother, Rose Spencer, in England, kept him in their hearts always.