Featured Alumnus: John Spencer ’71


Featured Alumnus: John Spencer ’71

Featured Alumnus: John Spencer ’71

When John Spencer ’71 first set foot on campus during his cousin Rick’s graduation in 1965, he recalls that he ‘had never seen a school or campus so beautiful.’ 

“I was really impressed by the design of the buildings. I fell in love with this place and I decided then that I really wanted to go to a school like this.” 

And so, it was not surprising that a couple of years later, in the fall of 1968, John enrolled as a sophomore after his father and Headmaster Don Pierpont had struck a deal.

“After about an hour interview that summer, my dad talked to him about the possibility of reducing the cost of tuition, which I think at the time was around $2,500. Mr. Pierpont agreed to work something out if I could work part time at the school, so I routed calls in the switchboard room, mostly at night. It was one of those old systems with wires and plugs that one had to connect to reach someone.”

Even with the extra work required after classes, John found time to come into his own during his years at Avon. For someone who had never participated in sports before, John found Avon to be a place where he could leave his history of being too small for any team behind and reinvented himself as someone who would not be intimidated or bullied.

“I tried out for fall swimming under Jorge Consuegra, thinking that since my cousin Rick has been captain of the team, I could make it,” John explains. “Turns out that I was not a very good swimmer and after drowning in the pool for a week, Mr. Consuegra politely told me that maybe my talents were needed elsewhere. Relieved, I went over to the cross-country team coached by Mr. Comeau and Mr. Ramirez. I made friends with George Cochrane who told me to tag along with him so that he could show me the course through the woods. After a couple hundred yards, I realized that I could run a lot faster than him, so I started to keep pace with the faster runners up ahead. Turns out I was a much better runner than a swimmer, so I found my niche. I was usually in the top five on the team and became captain the next year. I participated in wrestling in the winter, taking fourth in the state my junior year, and track in the spring. Doing well in sports contributed greatly to my self-esteem.” 

Back in the classroom, three legendary teachers really made an impact on John’s future. Sid Clark, the senior English teacher whom everyone respected and feared to some extent because he was pretty demanding and tough, taught him to write essays that improved with his critiques.

“This is something that later helped me write scientific articles,” John comments. He also added that biology teacher Mr. Billings and chemistry teacher Mr. Bill Kron were both fantastic mentors. John shared that even then he was really into science and knew, eventually, he would choose that field as a career. But he never thought he would someday find himself in Brazil, focusing on school children in order to track and help eradicate leprosy.

Initially John thought he might be interested in becoming a veterinarian, so he applied to schools that had veterinary programs: Purdue and the University of Pennsylvania. While at Avon, he was even able to complete a senior project during his spring semester working at a veterinary clinic in West Hartford and wrote of his experience there.

“One day, Mr. Trautman asked me to see him in his office. He asked me how important it was for me to go to Penn. Turned out he had graduated from there and he told me that if I was really interested in going to Penn, he had connections that would facilitate me getting accepted. That’s where I eventually ended up going.” 

While there, John took a class in microbiology and became fascinated with bacteria and viruses that cause infectious diseases. The next year, he applied to the University of Hawaii’s Microbiology Department.

“I had gone on vacation to see Phil Motta ’71 who was working on a doctorate on coral reef fish in the Zoology Department. I had not seen him since I visited his home in Jamaica in 1972,” John recalls. “He gave me an application to graduate school and the next year I was teaching in the microbiology lab in Hawaii, graduating with a Ph.D. in microbiology/immunology in 1986.”

In 1995, John joined the faculty at Colorado State University studying tuberculosis. A few years later, a University Distinguished Professor, Patrick Brennan needed someone to run his leprosy laboratory. John was his pick. 

“It was a friendly acquisition,” John jokes. “I’ve been working with the project now since 1999. While there is one main leprosy research program in Baton Rouge, the National Hansen’s Disease Program, with a 10-person team, I am probably unique in that I’ve traveled and conducted fieldwork annually in Brazil for over ten years.” 

Leprosy is a chronic disease characterized by lesions of the skin and peripheral nerve damage resulting in disfiguring lesions and progressive nerve damage that can lead to muscle weakness or atrophy, bone loss, amputations and blindness. The disease usually spreads only after prolonged, close contact.

Brazil is the only country in the world that has yet to meet the World Health Organization’s goal of less than one new case of leprosy detected per 10,000 population, detecting over 25,000 new cases of leprosy per year compared to about 200 in the U.S. per year. Delayed diagnosis and treatment can lead to skin lesions, nerve damage, disfigurement, and disability.

As a result of his expertise and interactions with groups in Brazil, John was named a Fulbright Scholar and worked in Brazil in 2015 – 16. In 2019, he received his second Fulbright award to Brazil. Most recently John made plans to return to Brazil for two months in 2020 to continue collaboration on a decade-long leprosy research project with Dr. Claudio Salgado, a professor and leprosy dermatologist in the Department of Biological Sciences at the Federal University of Pará, Belém, in the Amazon region.

“Developing a better, simple test to improve early diagnosis can help patients get the treatment they need to minimize transmission and progression of symptoms,” he said in an article about receiving the award.

While much of the world might think of leprosy as an ancient disease, John and his team have conducted studies which reveal that the disease is far from extinct. Evidence has accumulated that there are large numbers of asymptomatic, undiagnosed or misdiagnosed cases, and that up to four million of these hidden cases may exist by 2020 worldwide, representing a major threat to efforts by endemic countries to interrupt transmission and reach the global elimination target. (Microbiologist, December 2017) 

Since 2009, John has worked with a group focusing attention on over several dozen cities in the northern state of Pará, Brazil, which historically has had one of the highest disease rates in the country and, based on current rates, where there will be 40,000 new cases in children diagnosed in the next decade. (Microbiologist, December 2017)

“Our strategy utilizes active surveillance of schoolchildren and the household contacts of newly diagnosed cases, averaging 4% in children and 8% in household contacts indicating an extremely high number of hidden leprosy cases,” one of John’s articles explains. (Microbiologist, December 2017) Findings like these illustrate just how important the work of John’s team is in eradicating leprosy. A video documentary created in 2014 illustrates the trips well.

In addition to these field studies, John’s team has also recently discovered that the bacterium that causes leprosy, Mycobacterium leprae, can cause leprosy in armadillos in Brazil and chimpanzees in West Africa. And, while most transmission around the word can be tied back to humans, the recent discovery in wild chimpanzees is challenging that belief. The strains in the two chimp cases appear unrelated, and they are unlikely to have come from contact with humans. The finding could indicate an unknown source of leprosy in the wild and reveal new clues about a still-mysterious disease. 

Unfortunately, as John traveled to Brazil in March for his Fulbright, the COVID-19 pandemic was exploding around the world. 

“Things were getting bad here in the U.S., and I had already purchased my plane ticket in January, and all of my supplies as well,” he explains. “So, I went. No sooner than I had moved into my apartment did I receive an email from the Fulbright commission in Brazil telling me not to come… But I was already there!”

Because of COVID-19, the Fulbright award had been postponed, John was asked to return his funding, and he has been told that the program has also been canceled for the year 2021. At this point, he won’t make it back into the field for further study until 2022.

In an ironic twist of fate, despite being exposed to tropical diseases including yellow fever, malaria, and Chagas disease and actually contracting dengue fever and Zika virus in 2015 while exploring the world in search of leprosy, on the plane ride home from Brazil after his study had been canceled, John contracted COVID-19 from a sick woman sitting behind him in the first-class cabin. 

“I had a form that affected mostly my digestive system, not my lungs, and was able to recover from the worst of it within about five days,” he says. “But I am now enrolled in three different studies and have donated plasma that could possibly be used as a therapeutic treatment for COVID-19.” 

But John is still eager to get back into the field.

“Actually, going out and participating in these field studies has changed my perspective on the world. It’s been a great ride, and I am anxious to continue this important work.”

In addition to his research, John is also an associate professor at Colorado State University. He is married to wife Adela and has two grown children: Philip, a former marine, and Lauren, a manager at a Tokyo Joe’s restaurant.

Also, on the home front, John has remained connected with his Avon Old Farms family. There were only 52 people in the Class of 1971, and John says he was friends with at least 20 of them, and that relationships were particularly strong with those on the cross-country team.

“People like Joe Vecchiarino, Tim Beeble, Ralph Palmer, Dan Dotson, and Hank Coons come to mind,” he says. “We would frequently go back to walk the cross-country trail and around the Nimrod Cabin and Beaver Pond. The woods and trails around the campus were magical, it is the one thing that I remember most. Sundays were mostly free, and I loved walking in the woods and along the trails next to the streams. I named my son after my best friend, Philip Motta and still keep in touch with him. Sadly, we have lost a few, including one of my best friends, Joe Vecchiarino, who passed in 2018.”

John says that the view of the chapel and Diogenes dorm when driving onto campus always brings back incredible memories of the first time he visited for his cousin’s graduation. 

“I have come back to multiple reunions, particularly the five-year anniversaries and this year will be the big 5-0,” he says.

We are excited to reconnect with all of our alumni this year as we plan to celebrate the reunions of classes ending with '0, '5, '1, and '6.