Monday, January 17, 2011

The Backstory: Mad School Principal Kills 5, Wounds 1

Note: I found this post very difficult to write, for a number of reasons. For one, I love my grandmother dearly, and this incident has shaped her life irrevocably. Even now, 70 years later, every day she thinks of her father every day and misses him dearly. On a personal level, given my career in Human Resources, these are the stories my nightmares are made of. I fortunately work with wonderful people and have never been close to experiencing such a situation. Finally, recent events in Arizona have provided an emotional backdrop against which to research and write about these events. It’s humbling to know that such tragedy is not a historical event, yet something that continues to be a reality of our very fragile, human experience.

On May 6, 1940, Margie and Jim were set to go on their first date. Unfortunately, Margie received a phone call, telling her to come home to Pasadena at once – that “something had happened”.

Margie’s father was John Alman, Principal of South Pasadena High School. During the 20 years he served the children of Pasadena, he had overseen the education of 3,844 students. In addition to his contributions to education, John was dedicated to his community. He was a member of the Methodist Church, served as a Director of the local YMCA for 16 years, and was a charter member of the Kiwanis Club of South Pasadena. A highlight in his life was his journey to Berlin in 1936, accompanying the US Olympic team. Serving as an official for the Track and Field Competitions, John witnessed firsthand Jesse Owen’s stunning accomplishment of winning 4 Gold Medals.  Most of all, John was dedicated to his family – wife Eleanor, son John, and daughter Margie.

Verlin Spencer was the 37-year-old Principal at the local Junior High School. For the first five years of his employment, Spencer performed exceptionally as the Assistant Principal. He was promoted to Principal in 1938 based upon the recommendation of the staff, and at first, continued to demonstrate strong leadership and education progress.  However, a few months after he was promoted, Spencer’s performance and mental capacities seemed to deteriorate.  His behavior was described as paranoid, and he began to treat his staff in an irrational and confrontational manner.  He created irregular rules, including one that prohibited members of the faculty from speaking with one another alone without his express permission. Finally, in May of 1939, Spencer called a meeting with his staff, as well as members of the Board of Education. Based upon his extreme demands and accusations towards his staff at that meeting, the Board placed Spencer on an involuntary two week leave of absence. It was their perception that Spencer had suffered a nervous breakdown as a result of stress and anxiety, and it was hoped a leave would remedy the situation.

Spencer returned to his position as Principal in the fall of 1939. From some accounts, the issues of the prior year seemed to have been resolved. However, later testimony showed that Spencer continued to have contentious relationships with a few members of the faculty at the school. He was convinced that many were ‘plotting against him.’ At this point, it is important to note that Spencer was noted as an expert marksman. He owned several guns, and practiced at the local police shooting range on a regular basis. Some teachers later recalled that Spencer carried his .22-caliber Colt Woodsman semiautomatic pistol with him frequently, including at school in the company of staff and students. This fact, combined with an anxious and volatile personality, created an environment of fear amongst some members of his staff. More than likely, rather than issues being resolved, teachers simply feared speaking out against Spencer.

On the morning of Monday, May 6th, Spencer reportedly told one member of his staff that on May 5th, Superintendent George C. Bush had told him that he was going to recommend to the Board of Education that Spencer be removed from his current position as Principal of the South Pasadena Junior High School. According to this witness, Bush offered for Spencer to be moved into a teaching position at the High School, working for John Alman. Apparently, Spencer declined, saying that he ‘hated John Alman’. Bush then offered him a vice-principalship at the junior high under a new principal, which seemed to appease Spencer.

Just before noon on May 6th, Spencer requested an administration meeting with George Bush, as well as John, Will Speer, the South Pasadena school manager, and Elmer Erickson, Vice Principal of South Pasadena High School.  The meeting was set for early that afternoon. Before leaving for the meeting, Spencer addressed the entire Junior High assembly shortly before noon and gave them an extra half hour for lunch. He then drove over to the South Pasadena Schools Administration building for the meeting, where Bush, John and Speer had already gathered. Erickson was unable to attend the meeting on time – and this likely saved his life.

According to accounts of witnesses, a few minutes after the meeting started, shots rang out as Spencer took aim at the Superintendent, High School Principal and School Manager. There was no shouting, yelling or any other prior indication of disagreement.  John and Speer died instantly; Bush held on to life for a short while. Spencer left the meeting room, walked across the hall, and went into the office of Bush’s secretary, Miss Dorthea Talbert. As he shot at her, a stunned Talbert ducked – and the bullet shattered her shoulder and permanent paralyzed her from the waist down. Another secretary hid in her office, and was able to see as Spencer then ran out of the building and down to his car. In an ironic twist of fate, the car had a dead battery – and Spencer was assisted by a few unaware students who gave his car a jump start, allowing him to get on the road to his next destination prior to police arriving.

Spencer drove over to South Pasadena Junior High School, seeking out two teachers he felt had conspired against him. He first found Verner Vanderlip, junior high print shop teacher. He went into the print shop, where two students have testified that Spencer told Vanderlip that he needed his assistance in helping someone who had been hurt ‘downstairs’. Vanderlip’s body was later found hidden under a pile of desks. Spencer had shot him and taken the time to conceal his body so he could continue on to his next victim, Miss Ruth Sturgeon, art teacher. He entered her class room, where there were no students. He shot Sturgeon in the chest and hands, as she apparently tried to ward off his attack.  After shooting her, he ran to the school cafeteria where he attempted to end his own life by shooting himself in the chest. Ruth Sturgeon and Verlin Spencer survived the events of the 6th, and were taken to the hospital. Sturgeon passed away a few days later from her injuries. Spencer lived.

Like most dramatic events in life, the story of May 6th does not stop here. This blog post is a departure from our main story, however, so we will leave off with our side tour here. To read more, including theories about what happened to Spencer, as well as his potential motivations, you can check out the following link:

A Principal’s Bloody Rampage – LA Times – July 20, 1997

In Memorandum:
George C. Bush
John E. Alman
Will R. Speer
Verner V. Vanderlip
Ruth B. Sturgeon

John Alman

Sunday, January 16, 2011

July 10, 1940: Dearest Margie

July 10, 1940

Dearest Margie,

I received your letter today and felt like answering it right away. The fellows are waiting to go out to dinner but I don’t care. You’ll be the one that will get tired of receiving letters from me. This one makes three in three days, but I thought I had better write while I had the chance. And don’t you wait to hear from me every time you write because I could read three letters from you a day and then re-read them like I do now. Just write them every time you feel the urge and have the time.

Your last letter was swell, and I’m hearing ‘Nearness of You’ all day long, which means I’m thinking of you all the time. However, I don’t need the tune to remind me of you.

You hit the nail on the head when you said that if after one week, we feel the same in four months as we did then it must be real. Well the funny thing is that with me it’s growing more every day and I didn’t think it possible to miss you any more than I did when I left Wed night.

However I had better cut out the sentimental stuff or you’ll get tired of it, and then where would I be.
We’re having another tropical storm here that is drenching everything. I’m working hard, and Al said something today that my first trip will probably be to the coast I hope so.

Have you heard from Chuck? I imagine he’s having a great time. I hope Cope comes through here soon. I wonder how much a phone call to the coast would cost me. I’ve thought of doing it a number of times. I saw that Hastings guy around town and tried to convince him that you miss him, but he just went off into a haze. He said he couldn’t believe it, but told me if I should ever run across that Alman gal, to tell her he loves her.