James W. Spencer tells it like it was

By Lori Avery (Budd)

An interview with the Cornell Local Roads Program's first leader

On a chilly day in February 2001 we hosted a social gathering in honor of James W. Spencer, the first leader of the Cornell Local Roads Program. Following the event, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mr. Spencer to learn about the early years of our Program.

From the firm handshake to the engaging smile, I knew my conversation with the former program leader was going to be memorable! This summer completes the 50th year since Jim Spencer was chosen to lead the Program. We celebrate this anniversary with pleasure, pride, and admiration for the man who strengthened a foundation and used it to build and sculpt an outreach program that remains strong today. I want to share the interview highlights with you, but first a little history, to put our conversation in perspective.

The Local Roads Program's roots actually go back to the 1920s when in 1923 the Civil Engineering Department at Cornell University held a conference on highway engineering. The first School for Highway Superintendents was held in 1938, the second in 1940. A few years were skipped during the war, and then the School began annual meetings in 1947.

Jim Spencer's first involvement with the Highway School was in 1949.

Fortunately for Jim, a solid relationship existed between the agricultural economics, agricultural engineering and civil engineering departments at Cornell. In fact with the interest and influence of Professor Ed Lutz in Agricultural Economics, the Temporary Commission on Agriculture, chaired by Senator Erwin, recommended that a highway research and extension program be initiated. Stemming from legislation establishing a ten-year town highway improvement program in New York, Jim was invited to lead a support program located at Cornell.

When Jim and I first sat down, I was delighted to see that he had in front of him his calendar from 1951 filled with scheduled meetings, classes, and lots of notes jotted in the margins. In addition he brought a bound collection of Highway Topics, dated 1952-1961 in which he had written a column entitled, Cornell Highway Extension Notes. For several years the column included a "Why?" section inviting and carrying written responses from highway superintendents. Highway Topics was published monthly by the Association of Towns of the State of New York.

Following are my questions (LA), and Jim's responses (JWS) :

LA: What was happening in the late 1940s that led Cornell's Agricultural Engineering Department to establish the Local Roads Program?

JWS: Agricultural needs created a growing importance of local rural roads. Posted weight limits on roads were becoming especially tough on dairy farmers because of bulk milk pick up. Fifty years ago, 78 percent of town highway mileage was considered "unimproved" road (no bituminous or other surfacing). The traveled way of 85 percent of mileage was only 14 feet wide or less.

Senator Erwin consequently shaped and promoted what became known as the "Erwin Program" in 1951 that established financing and specifications for road improvements. This ten-year improvement plan was to aid towns in the development of their highways with an annual appropriation by the State granted to towns that decided to participate. New York State's participation was to pay 25-75 percent of highway improvement costs (depending on the town's ability to pay) up to $7,000 per mile. In 1957 this figure was raised to $9,000 per mile.

Some of the Erwin Law requirements were:

  • A regular traveled way of 16 feet with 5-foot shoulders on each side
  • Raised grade line for effective drainage, with backslopes cleared and sloped
  • A base of at least 12 inches of granular material
  • Use of up to % gallon of bituminous material per square yard (toward which state would contribute)

LA: What was the primary goal of the Local Roads Program when it was established?

JWS: Our goal was to provide extension and research to assist highway superintendents as they undertook the rather massive ten-year town highway improvement plan (the Erwin Plan).

LA: What were the Program's priority initiatives?

JWS: Our top priority was to help highway superintendents make the best use of local materials (gravel), and to be careful in their use of bituminous materials. Training played a major role in carrying out that initiative. Our first courses were on:

  • Gravel
  • Drainage
  • Bituminous materials
  • Priorities for local road improvements
  • Town garages (building according to needs and budget)

LA: Tell us how you informed municipalities of your existence.

JWS: The program was actually an enhancement of an "already-in-place" concept. It was sort of a 'tack-on" to the Highway Schools which the locals already knew. I spoke at meetings of the Association of Towns, the Town Superintendents Association, and (after 1960) the NYCOM Public Works School. I also wrote the column in Highway Topics for a decade. LA: How did you evaluate your success?

JWS:The Program was good enough that Lynne Irwin was hired to continue and improve it. And, I'm glad to see that some of the exhibits Chuck Ditmars and I did are still on display here.

In 1956, the NYS Association of Town Superintendents of Highways was appreciative enough to give some money to us. This was used to develop a fund , named for the highway superintenderts, for needy Cornell students. Their initial donation was $400. Over the next four years 350 shortterm, interest free, loans were granted for a total of $5,760.

LA: Will you briefly describe how life was lived in highway departments in the early '50s and how those circumstances have changed today.

JWS: Life was much simpler then. The typical annual salaries for highway officials were:

  • Commissioner of New York State Department of Transportation (then NYS Department of Public Works) - $17,500
  • County Superintendent of Highways (in rural counties) - $5 ,000
  • Town Highway Superintendent (in rural towns) - $2 ,500

We saw some major developments. For example, in 1956 (over a four-year period) yellow STOP signs were replaced (by order of the State Traffic Commission) with red STOP signs.

LA: What were some of the most common requests for assistance in the early years of the Program?

JWS: How to prospect for gravel (using agricultural soil maps and air photos), and how to evaluate gravels for road use. LA: What was your favorite highway department story?

JWS: I remember some stories from the Highway School. We did a demonstration in 1956 on "hearsay multiplied". To involve participants instead of the typical "speaking/listening session", I read a story of an incident to one highway superintendent who then repeated the story to another, which was spread yet again to others. It was interesting to see how the final "interpretations" were quite different from the original story.

In 1957, instead of scheduling a speech on the merits of applying bituminous surfacings on all Erwin Roads, we featured debate teams (which presented affirmative and negative sides of the matter).

LA: Are there any people who particularly stand out in your memory of your years with the Program?

JWS: I watched Chuck Ditmars (who worked with the Program as a technician for 36 years, through 1989) become one of the best gravel experts anywhere.

And, I'll always remember a graduate student, William C. Burnett, (who later served effectively as the Director of Research for the New York State Department of Transportation). [Editor's note: Bill retired in 1992. His son still works for the NYSDOT.]

Among highway superintendents, one especially helpful to me over the years was the late Lenferd Seeley, close by in the Town of Newfield. He helped with an early test road in his town, and was a frequent and insightful responder to "Why?" questions. Lenferd always provided helpful advice to me when asked , and was highly respected by Cornell students who stopped by to discuss road-improvement projects with him.

LA: What do you consider your most satisfying experience during your tenure as leader of the Program?

JWS: Because we had such a small staff I was able to coordinate and assist our efforts The close personal involvement was very satisfying.

One satisfying experience occurred just before I became the leader of the Program. I was teaching a required Highway Engineering class at Cornell for approximately 16 students. Instead of a written final exam, the students had to deal with " real world problems" of town highway departments. Their final exam was to give presentatons on the problems with their recommendations.

Another satisfaction was how impressed I was with the intellectual substance of local highway superintendents in their responses to my Why? question and answer columns, featured in the Highway Topics monthly newsletter.

LA: What guiding principles can you share with us that you used while leading the Program?

JWS: My guiding principle was a strong respect for road officials and the challenges they face.

LA: How can we best measure our Program's impact and success today?

JWS: I think the best measure is your attendance trend at Highway Schools and training sessions. You can also evaluate your success by looking at the new ideas and programs that emerge out of your contact with local officials.

I was enthralled by Jim's stories and experiences, but noticed that late afternoon had crept upon us. It was time to say goodbye . Jim graciously allowed me to borrow his bound journal of Highway Topics that I spent hours looking th rough . It's amazing that a lot of the road problems faced during Jim's years with the Program still abound today. Most of the solutions, then and today, are based on the same principles, but new technologies continue to ease the procedures.

While reading some of the newsletters Jim left with me, I happened upon an excerpt of a speech given at the 1953 Highway School by Professor Ben H. Petty of Purdue University. Here are Prof. Petty's glowing remarks of Jim Spencer's work:

" ... Jim is doing a grand job. It's difficult for some highway professors to go out and work successfully with county, state or town road men because they won't get down off their high-horse and talk the language of the men ... They use too many six-cylinder words, too many technical terms, and nobody understands them ... Jim has his feet on the ground, and he is sincere and enthusiastic ...

To put the finishing touches on the painted picture of Jim Spencer, I bring you another excerpt of an article written in the September 1961 issue of Highway Topics by Earl J. Mattis, Highway Superintendent for St. Lawrence County. This was written in response to Jim's decision to "broaden his horizons" and cease contributing regular articles to the newsletter:

" ... We doubt there is a town or county highway superintendent in the state who does not know of Jim Spencer and his important work. Hundreds are his friends. He is highly respected for his professional and technical knowledge of highways as well as for his sound, practical approach to highway problems. His contributions to improved local roads and to better highway administration throughout the state are greater than those of any other single person we know at any level ... One finds it hard to thank adequately a person like Jim for a job done in a superior fashion because he has been doing jobs like that for the townspeople of his state for some ten years now ... "

That says it all.

On behalf of our Program and all of the people we serve, "Thank you, Jim," for the commitment, dedication, and strength you devoted to the Cornell Local Roads Program in your 19 years as its leader. We celebrate our Program's 50th year in honor of your work.

Spring 2001