Dr. Robert H. “Bob” Spiro Jr., who served from 1964 to 1979 as Jacksonville University’s president, and was a U.S. Navy Reserve rear admiral and Undersecretary of the Army, died Tuesday, Oct. 1, in Charlotte, N.C. He was 92.
As the University’s longest-serving president, Dr. Spiro had an enduring impact on campus – and was a U.S. patriot, as well, said JU President Tim Cost.
“Jacksonville University has lost one of its most instrumental and patriotic leaders; under Dr. Spiro’s 15 years of leadership, JU experienced growth in stature, facilities and enhancements in all areas of campus life,” Cost said. “Admiral Spiro also served our country for nearly four decades in the U.S. Navy and as Undersecretary of the Army, and created Florida’s first Naval ROTC program here at JU.
“We are honored to have graduated more than 1,250 officers who went on to become military leaders in both our Navy and Marine Corps, and will forever be beholden to Dr. Spiro’s contributions to JU and to our country.”
Dr. Frances Bartlett Kinne, who succeeded Dr. Spiro as JU president and now is the University’s chancellor emeritus, says she was impressed by Dr. Spiro’s leadership, faculty support, and “how he became part of the JU community."
Dr. Spiro chaired Jacksonville's Sesquicentennial celebration in 1972 and was instrumental in selecting the campus' "Jacksonville Sesquicentennial Oak," which symbolically links the University and community.
“(Dr. Spiro) will be remembered for the continuity he provided when we were a young university, and for the stability he lent to JU over the course of his entire tenure,” Dr. Kinne said.
Dr. Spiro’s daughter, Jacksonville resident Elizabeth Spiro, said her father – who was JU’s president in 1970 when Artis Gilmore led the basketball team to the National Collegiate Athletic Association basketball championship game – was a loving man with a special place in his heart for JU.
“For many years, the only watch my father had and wore was his NCAA watch, from the Artis Gilmore era,” she said. “It reminded him of those times and of JU. It showed his love for the school …
“One of the things that I admired most about Dad was his dedication to JU and Jacksonville, to making his university the best it could be, and his city better. Also, his and my mother's deep faith was a guiding factor in my life. Dad was a remarkable man.”
Born on Dec. 5, 1920, in Asheville, N.C., Dr. Spiro enlisted in the U.S. Navy in December 1941 at the age of 19. He served as a supply officer and took part in eight major combat campaigns on the Pacific Ocean through the end of World War II. He then entered the Naval Reserve, retiring as a rear admiral in 1979.
As he traveled the world with the Navy, Dr. Spiro focused on academia. With bachelor degrees from Wheaton (Ill.) College and post-graduate degrees from the University of North Carolina, University of Edinburgh (Scotland) and Duke University in Durham, N.C., Dr. Spiro taught history at King College in Bristol, Tenn., and at Mississippi College in Clinton, Miss.
He served as president of Blue Ridge Assembly in Black Mountain, N.C., in 1960, and as dean of the College of Liberal Arts and professor of history at Mercer University in Macon, Ga., from 1960 until accepting the JU leadership post in 1964.
In speeches and interviews, Dr. Spiro said his most prideful accomplishment at JU was starting a Naval ROTC program in 1971, during an era when anti-war sentiment was prevalent. Today, the JU Naval ROTC program is the second-largest in the United States.
“We needed to grow our enrollment and Navy midshipmen were, and are, among the best students at any university …” Dr. Spiro recalled in a 2010 speech at JU. “(Then-Navy Secretary) John Warner … said to me, ‘Bob, do you mean that Jacksonville University actually wants an ROTC? Some ROTCs are under attack ... I firmly replied, ‘Aye, aye, sir.’”
Capt. Herbert M. Hadley, JU’s current Naval ROTC commander, said Dr. Spiro was abundantly supportive of the campus’ military program from the time he left JU until his death. Hadley said Dr. Spiro telephoned him a week before his death to “see how the program is going and to keep in touch, which he liked to do.”
“He was extremely proud of the unit and proud of the fact that he had an instrumental part in starting the (ROTC) unit,” Hadley said. “He talked a lot about how when other universities did not want a unit, Jacksonville University embraced the unit.”
In 2010, JU dedicated the Admiral Robert H. Spiro NROTC Training Center, which includes an obstacle course and gazebo. Spiro also established an NROTC scholarship endowment for students exhibiting qualities of high character and academic ability.
“Dr. Spiro embraced the ROTC unit and the ROTC unit embraced the university,” Hadley said. “The award is presented to a student who embodies what (Dr. Spiro) was all about.”
With Dr. Spiro at the helm, JU expanded in number of faculty members, buildings, programs and library book volumes. The Howard Administration and Gooding Building were constructed; the Friends of the JU Library was established; JU’s beneficiary honor society, Order of the Dolphin, was established; and JU adopted Marineland’s Nellie the dolphin as its mascot in 1970. Today, Nellie is the oldest dolphin in human care and the oldest living college mascot in the U.S.
Dr. Quinton White, JU’s Marine Science Research Institute director, said that Spiro helped bring marine science classes to campus and has remained the program’s largest benefactor since leaving the University.
“He also helped JU weather a bit of a storm, because he was president when (the University of North Florida) started, and there was some retrenchment at JU with the new competition, and some enrollment challenges. But he helped us get through it,” White said.
White’s wife, 1978 JU biology graduate Susan (Hite) White, fondly recalls Dr. Spiro’s speech to her 1975 (Jacksonville) Lee High School graduating class.
“I remember his topic: ‘And then some.’ He spoke at length to the graduates about meeting the main requirements in life ‘and then some’ as they went out into the world,” Susan White said. “He pointed to me and the two other valedictorians on stage and said we were examples of people who had met all requirements ‘and then some.’
Spiro served as President Jimmy Carter’s Undersecretary of the Army appointee from 1980-81, and later undertook various business, academic, governmental and charitable endeavors. Among them, he was National Security Caucus Foundation president, American Security Council chairman, Reserve Officer’s Association national executive director, and University of Edinburgh USA Development Trust president.
In addition to his daughter, Dr. Spiro is survived by his wife, Juanita T. Henderson, of Charlotte; his sons, Dr. Robert T. Spiro of Silverdale, Wash., and James M. Spiro of Sylva, N.C.; sister, Sarah Scott of Bristol, Tenn.; and his eight grandchildren and six great grandchildren. He was preceded in death by his first wife, Suenell Spiro; and sister, Margaret Norwood.
A memorial service will be held at 4 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 5, in the chapel of Hankins & Whittington Funeral Service in Charlotte. In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be in Dr. Spiro’s honor made to the American Security Council Foundation, 1250 24th St. N.W., Suite 300, Washington, D.C. 20037; or The Admiral Robert H. Spiro NROTC Award Endowment, Jacksonville University, 2800 University Blvd. N., Jacksonville, FL 32211.