May 26-June 8, 2000
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University of Virginia scientists who have won patents since Jan. 1, 1999
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Stephanie Gross
Edwin Spenceley

Machinist grinds out long career, piece by piece

By Dan Heuchert

Along McCormick Road, workers scurried to put the final pre-graduation flourishes on Central Grounds last week, cleaning and pruning and mowing and erecting signs for the tens of thousands of visitors due to arrive in a few days. Nearby on Alderman, crews buzzed around, steadily recreating Scott Stadium into a 21st-century sports palace.

Meanwhile, high above on Observatory Hill, machinist Edwin Spenceley quietly put in yet another day in a string of days spanning 45 years.

Spenceley, 71, is the sole remaining craftsman in the Engineering School's shop at the Aerospace Research Laboratory building, which seems to occupy another time. Industrial blue-gray machines fill the center of the room and every corner; power lathes and drills and saws of all sizes are arrayed in an orderly fashion about the concrete floor. The small, stocky man, who runs them as easily as most people use a fork, guesses that they average about 40 years of service, a half-decade or so less than his own.

The only splashes of color in the room come from photos of nature scenes, salvaged from old calendars and taped neatly on a few white wooden doors. The brick and block walls, also painted white, are lined with shelves full of equipment and supplies. Lighting comes from a few old windows and fluorescent tube lights suspended from the 25-foot ceilings.

This is Spenceley's realm, above the hubbub.

"I like it," he says in a gentle, quiet voice. "It's out of the mainstream. I don't get too many interruptions."

Spenceley apologizes to his visitor for not being much of a talker, then invites him into his small office just off the shop. He offers a chair, then takes his own seat on a large blue storage tub, which he later opens to reveal pounds of peanuts and sunflower seeds. He leaves some outside one of the shop-room doors every day for squirrels, crows, rabbits, doves and the odd groundhog, and even makes special trips on weekends.

"I'm going to have to figure out a way to wean them," he said.

The animals aren't the only ones needing to be weaned. Spenceley is retiring -- sort of. Actually, he's cutting back to three days a week; cold-turkey retirement, he said, might be too much of an adjustment to make at one time. "It would be too much shock, like jumping into cold water. If you do something for 45 years and stop, I don't know if my body could stand the difference."

The University, particularly its researchers, might not be able to stand his absence either. They count on him to make the parts they require, and often to translate vague needs into finished products.

"The quality of his work is excellent," said his supervisor, Ed McMurdo, a systems accountant for research support in the Engineering School. "He's in demand by the researchers in the Engineering School and around the University."

"He's done a lot of machining for us," said James McDaniel, a professor of mechanical, aerospace and nuclear engineering, who has worked with Spenceley for 17 years. "A lot of it is high-precision work involving supersonic wind tunnels.

"He's wonderful [to work with]. He's very pleasant. He's particularly good with students. He does as much training as making," pointing out how they might make things better or less costly, McDaniel said.

"A lot of times you have sketches, and sometimes you have more," Spenceley said. "Sometimes you have a problem and you don't know how to solve it. You have to do a lot of original thinking."

That's the best part of his job, he says -- "the challenge of new things. I don't mass-produce anything. Everything I do is original. Plus, I go home in the evening, and I can look back and see what I've done. I can take something in my hands and say, "This is what I made today.'"

The emphasis is on precision. He often works on tiny pieces, including parts of artificial heart valve prototypes. "I can work two or three days, and can put the whole thing in a thimble sometimes," he said.

Spenceley was born in England and completed his apprenticeship there before moving to Charlottesville with his parents. His first job was working for a Richmond firm that made tobacco-processing equipment; five years later, he went to work for the physics department at what is now Auburn University in Alabama.

Professors familiar with his work there recruited him to work at U.Va. in 1955. He set up shop on Observatory Hill and has been there ever since, except for "seven or eight years" when the operation was moved to what is now Olsson Hall.

There used to be as many as seven people working in the Observatory Hill shop. Now, machining work is spread out among 11 shops around Grounds.

"I know most of the people at the others," he said. "We exchange ideas all the time, or they come to me for advice."

He'll still be around on a limited basis, but he hopes to spend more time puttering around his East Rio Road home.

He particularly enjoys building model ships and elaborate dollhouses that he has given away to friends and family. He may make another for his church to raffle off, he said.


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