WASHINGTON — Benjamin Spencer is best known for being a "first": He is the first Black dean of the nation's first law school.
But there are at least a couple of other numbers that stand out when considering his life and achievements so far.
There's nine, the number of children he and his wife, Marlette, share. And then there's 40, his age when, as a tenured professor at a top-tier law school, he joined the Army Reserve, later going through rigors of basic training with men and women close to half his age.
"He held off for years from joining," Marlette said later. "But the dream. I knew the dream was in him."
The dream of serving his country is still a reality in the life of now-Capt. Benjamin Spencer, as he balances his work as a Judge Advocate General's Corps officer with his day job at William & Mary Law School and family duties.
Family of Firsts
As the son, grandson and great-grandson of soldiers, Spencer grew up with an appreciation for service.
He also came from a tradition of trailblazing: Spencer's grandfather was the first African American professor at the University of Notre Dame.
His father was the first African American chief judge in the Eastern District of Virginia, and the first African American federal judge in Virginia before that.
From him, Spencer inherited a love of the law.
"He had this righteousness about the public's interest and justice … That's how he was as a judge [later]. People knew he was going to be fair," Spencer said. "I had that instilled in me that there are rules and we have laws. We have a society that depends on people following those laws."
Spencer attended Harvard Law School, where he served as articles editor of the Harvard Law Review and won multiple awards for legal writing, among other honors.
The accolades continued as he embarked on his legal career, in private practice and then academia.
He worked as an associate at Shearman & Sterling law firm in Washington, D.C.; taught at the University of Richmond School of Law; served as a director of the Francis Lewis Law Center and the associate dean for research at Washington and Lee University; and served on the faculty at the University of Virginia School of Law.
In 2007, he received the Virginia State Council of Higher Education "Rising Star" award, given to the most promising junior faculty member among all academic fields at all colleges and universities in the state — the first law professor recipient.
He authored two books on civil procedure used by professors and students across the country.
By the time he got to William & Mary, he'd garnered a national reputation as an expert in civil procedure and federal courts.
"His resume is ridiculous. Ridiculous!" Marlette told an interviewer in 2020.
'That's How I Got the Bug'
All the while, his family's emphasis on public service stayed with him.
"Everybody that raised me or influenced me, they were serving others," Spencer said. "I couldn’t look at myself if I wasn’t trying to do something to help other people, or use my talent for that purpose."
He mentored students and younger colleagues at the universities where he taught. He did pro bono appellate work for the federal government.
While working as a professor at U.Va., where the school for Army lawyers is located, Spencer would watch JAG officers running or in formation each morning.
"That’s how I got the bug," he said.
Spencer took his oath to join the Army Reserve in late 2015. He spent more than a year training physically before shipping off to basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia, losing 27 pounds in the process.
As a JAG officer today, he is assigned to the Government Appellate Division, where he briefs and argues appeals on behalf of the Army.
'Lifting as We Climb'
Whether discussing his Army service or the history he's made at the nation's first law school, Spencer isn't one for self-congratulation.
"I'm not really into stories about myself," he told an interviewer in 2020.
Rather, to him, it's an opportunity to be an example for other Black men and women who are watching, and to fight to open doors for others.
"That's just part of our ethos as Black folks," Spencer said. "We have a thing [for] lifting as we climb. As we go to the next level, we have to kind of reach back and pull somebody up behind."
Chief among those he's setting an example for are his children.
"He puts his family first,” Marlette told an interviewer in 2020.
"He works, puts his heart and soul into his job and comes home, walks through the door, doesn't change his clothes … washes his hands and goes into the kitchen to start cooking."
"My kids can look at my husband and see that they don't have any boundaries," she said. "They don't have any glass ceilings above them."