Machinist grinds out
long career, piece by piece
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
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.
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."
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.
going to have to figure out a way to wean them," he said.
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."
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
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."
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.
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,
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.'"
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,"
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.
used to be as many as seven people working in the Observatory
Hill shop. Now, machining work is spread out among 11 shops around
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.
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.