Mr. Spencer Vespole: Witty Teacher, Dedicated Coach, Beloved by All

Mr.+Spencer+Vespole+%2709+with+the+2018+Varsity+Water+Polo+Team+during+Senior+Night

Michael Scanlan

Mr. Spencer Vespole ’09 with the 2018 Varsity Water Polo Team during Senior Night

He was a man of character, ever reminding his water polo team to be principled athletes. And, he was beloved by students and staff alike as a “character,” due to his ongoing witticisms, perennially youthful outlook, and a taste for the whimsical that included commuting from his Newark apartment to school on a black and silver scooter.

Spencer George Vespole ‘09, chair of the history department, recipient of the Raymond J. Sachs ‘25 Memorial Teaching Award for 2018, and head water polo coach, passed away at age 29 last week, after a prolonged battle with cancer. Spencer is survived by his mother, Lindy Fisher, his father, Mark Vespole, his girlfriend, Sarah Hakes, as well as numerous family and friends.

Michael Scanlan
During a high school game, Spencer and other teammates discuss their game plan.

Mr. Vespole, according to colleagues and students, was not only a gifted history teacher and inspirational coach. He was, to many, a valued mentor and friend. “The greatest part of working with Mr. Vespole was that he was the best of both worlds,” said Ms. Stephanie Kranz, a math teacher befriended by Mr. Vespole when she first joined the faculty in 2016. “He could be funny and laugh about stupid jokes… He could also give a very knowledgeable talk about society. He was a fun party guy but he was also super smart.”

Mr. Vespole’s unpredictability was part of his charm. 

“Even if something is impossible to accomplish he would make you believe it was possible,” said Sylvers Owusu ’03, the Gray Bees’ Assistant Soccer Coach. “I challenged him once thinking a big guy his size wasn’t going to be able to do it but he proved me wrong. If there is one thing I learned from him and one thing that is going to stick with me forever it is this: Don’t ever underestimate someone about what they are capable of.”

As St. Benedict’s freshman history teacher and head water polo coach, Mr. Vespole saw many students come in, grow, and blossom to the men they are today. Being an alumnus, he was very used to the place called The Hive, a place many call home.

Michael Scanlan
Head Water Polo Coach Spencer Vespole maps out a strategy between quarters.

Students remembered Mr. Vespole for his fun nature, which included allowing students to call him “Spence.” “I remember when Spence hopped in the pool to play against me in practice for water polo,” said Edward Zuniga SY. “I owe it to him for pushing me to be the player that I am today.” 

Student’s also remember Mr. Vespole’s seriousness when it came to sportsmanship. In games that the water polo team would be winning handily, Mr. Vespole reminded the team not to run up the score as a sign of respect for the other team. “Spence would discuss issues that occurred to the team after practice and would tell us, ‘Don’t be stupid,’” said Alex Benanti UDI. “But the real message was to think before doing something.” 

Mr. Vespole graduated from Benedict’s in 2009 and went on to study history at Bowdoin College in Maine. He returned to Benedict’s during the first semester of his senior year to volunteer as a teacher. During that time, he also assisted Dr. Glenn Cassidy in coaching water polo. After graduating from Bowdoin with a bachelor’s degree in history, he accepted a full-time teaching post at Benedict’s.

After long days at school, he worked with Dr.Cassidy, co-coaching the water polo team. Water polo had long been a passion of Mr. Vespole’s. He started playing the sport at Benedict’s in eighth grade, under Dr. Cassidy’s tutelage. Mr. Vespole played through high school and competed on the college circuit. To him, coaching was a natural progression from his competition years.

Michael Scanlan
Mr. Vespole, as a high school player, catches a pass from another water polo teammate

 “He was eager to coach, I stepped back as he continued to take charge,” Dr. Cassidy said. “After three years, I officially handed it over to him. It was an easy transition with Spencer. A lot of times, these types of things can be difficult for people who don’t work well together. With him, it was very straightforward.” Dr. Cassidy added that Mr. Vespole made “the team his own.”

At the start of his teaching career at Benedict’s, Mr. Vespole taught history to seventh and eighth graders in what was formerly known as the Lower Division. He became known for his engaging teaching approach, transforming often dry subject matter into something riveting.

 “Spencer had this ability to get kids involved in challenges that they would never have thought they would have done,” said Headmaster Fr. Edwin Leahy, O.S.B ‘63. “When he started to teach freshmen, Mr. Vespole conceived of approaches to make normally dull parts of the class interesting.”

One of his trademark efforts was his final exam “Challenge,” where students were invited to take on a high-risk situation with the chance of a big payoff. “I remember Mr. Vespole’s Challenge,” said Dario Guzman SY, one of the elite few who accepted the challenge and succeeded. “If you got a 5% or lower on the final, you got rewarded with a 150% on the final. If you got anything higher, you were stuck with that low percentage as your grade. So if you got six questions right, you got a 6%.” 

In order to win the challenge, Mr. Vespole reasoned, a student had to know the subject matter so well, he would know how to get every question wrong. 

When Mr. Vespole first entered Benedict’s, he had been struggling with his poor behavior at his previous middle school. “He was getting himself in a whole lot of trouble in middle school,” Dr. Cassidy said. “Spencer’s father, who graduated with Fr. Mark (Payne, O.S.B.) from both here and Notre Dame (University) told Fr. Mark, ‘I need to do something, can he go to Benedict’s?’ So Fr. Mark said ‘Yes.’”

Mr. Vespole became an active student at Benedict’s. A talented writer, his service included a stint as an editor on the school’s newspaper. “When Spencer was a senior, he and the other guys on The Benedict News stepped up big time because I was out for medical treatment,” said Mrs. Noreen Connolly, the managing editor of Advancement Publications who was the school’s journalism teacher at the time. “I will always remember his loyalty and perseverance that year.” Mr. Vespole’s courage and strength through his recent trials, she added, have inspired everyone. “He has been a tremendous example to all of us,” she said.

In high school,  Mr. Vespole was drafted into Father Cornelius Selhuber. When he returned as a teacher, he became Fr. Cornelius’ group moderator. 

“Mr. Vespole was my group moderator, and I’ve known him since seventh grade,” said David Rahaman SY, the current group leader for Fr. Cornelius.  “He was the first adult I met here at Benedict’s. I still remember the first day I met him. He wore a bright pink shirt, with blue dress pants.”

 Mr. Vespole’s light-hearted spirit was contagious, Rahaman remembered. “I’ll never forget the times he wrestled with students, came to the group with his Nintendo 3DS, or even the times we saw his toothpaste and toothbrush in his pocket. He always told me to keep my grades up and that I was destined for great things.”

Before his passing, Mr. Vespole was working on his master’s degree in history at Seton Hall University. Mr. Rich Gallerani, who is also a history teacher at St. Benedict’s, was able to obtain Mr. Vespole’s master’s degree diploma a few months ahead of graduation. Mr. Gallerani and other teachers presented the framed document to Mr. Vespole a few weeks ago in his hospital bed while loved ones looked on.

Mr. Vespole was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 2018 and fought the disease until he succumbed to its complications on Friday, Dec. 13.

Spencer was remembered as a unique soul who held original ideas about society and civilization.

“Spencer was always off-center and offbeat,” Fr. Ed said. “He saw the world differently. He was goofy enough in a good sense to get kids involved in that. He engaged guys, and everyone talked about him.  He was also a super-smart guy and he had a big heart.”

Dates of visitation are: Thursday, Dec. 19, 6:30 p.m. – 9 p.m., Union Congregational Church, 176 Cooper Ave., Upper Montclair; and Friday, Dec. 20, 8:00 a.m. – 10:00 a.m. St. Benedict’s Prep, 520 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. Newark

A funeral service will be held on Friday, Dec. 20, at 10:00 a.m. at  St. Benedict’s Prep, 520 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd. in Newark.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to St. Benedict’s Prep. Donations can be made in support of the water polo program or for the general fund.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email