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#165 The Story of the Spencer Memorial Mace

Jeff Dobbin 200 Things about Norwich, This Week in History

The installation on October 15th, 1982, of MG W. Russell Todd as Norwich University’s 22nd president was the occasion of the premier appearance of the Spencer Memorial Mace in an academic ceremony.

The ceremonial scepter or mace represents the academic authority of the University and is carried by the senior member of the faculty. Customarily a mace precedes an academic procession. At Norwich, it appears during Convocation and both the undergraduate at CGCS Commencement ceremonies. The rest of the year, it resides under the care of the Sullivan Museum and History Center.

The Spencer Mace is linked to a long tradition which stretches back to the Middle Ages, when academic maces were first carried in ceremonial processions as symbols of dignity and authority. The academic ceremonial mace evolved from both the royal scepter and the battle mace. It became an important insignia of European universities, and some American universities have followed suit.

The Norwich mace is named in honor of the late Dana Professor of Government Eber A. Spencer, Jr., and was given to the University by Richard S. King ‘68 and Dudley H. Willis ‘64, as a tribute to the teacher who served the University with great distinction for three decades.

About six months before Professor Spencer’s death in 1982, the donors decided that they wished to sponsor a project to honor their former teacher. It was Professor Spencer himself who selected a mace as his tribute. For many years he had discussed the need for an institutional mace. Professor Emeritus Gary Lord rendered a detailed design, which Professor Spencer approved. Unfortunately, he never saw the mace in its completed form.

The design of the Spencer Mace is rich in its symbolism. At the top of the mace is the head of a whitetail deer and at the foot is a cone from a red spruce, the quintessential Vermont evergreen. The stag trampling the serpent signifies the victory of good over evil. The wooden staff is fluted to give appearance of fasces, the ancient Roman symbol of authority. Other symbols include the seal of the University, the seal of the State of Vermont, and a decorative engraving from an 1867 Norwich diploma.

The execution of the complex design presented a challenge. A New Hampshire goldsmith brought together a diverse team of craftsmen to undertake the challenging project. Fred Danforth of the renowned Danforth Pewter contributed the urn-shaped element near the head of the mace. An engraver, a sculptor, and a woodworker were among the others who lent their expertise.

The metal work in the three-foot-long mace is fabricated from sterling silver, except for the band twisted around the base of the laurel wreath. The band is fashioned from solid gold which was panned from streams in Central Vermont. The mace handle was turned from the wood of a sugar maple tree which had grown in Norwich, Vermont, the town in which Norwich University was first organized.

The Spencer Mace has become an important part of the academic ritual and tradition of the University. The mace is a meaningful object which lends dignity to ceremonial occasions, but it is also a fitting and proper tribute to a teacher who inspired the University with his intellect, eloquence, and humanity.

Adapted from an article by Professor Emeritus Gary Lord that appeared in the March 1983 edition of the Norwich Record.