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Developer dies; he ‘felt so good’ seeing families in new homes

A Maui developer whose hardscrabble youth gave him a passion for building homes for working families died Monday. He was 85.

Wailea resident Jesse Spencer spent a lifetime constructing businesses, churches and affordable housing. He left his mark on Maui with the 1,000 homes he helped build and the close-knit family that still runs his development business.

“He was a man who had a can-do attitude,” son Doug Spencer said Thursday. “Where others said ‘You can’t,’ he said, ‘I can.’ That is what drove him in his life.”

Born in Indiana in 1930, Jesse Spencer grew up as the son of a seamstress and a plasterer who didn’t have much but worked hard, family members said. The family patriarch told his children he was “always in trouble” as a young man, hanging out in pool halls and the streets, Doug Spencer said.

After one run-in with the law, the judge gave Spencer the choice of joining the military or going to jail. After graduating from high school in 1948, Spencer joined the Air Force.

“He never thought he was a smart guy,” his son said. But then he took a military aptitude test and found out he was “one of the smartest guys in basic training.” His superiors sent him to Japan to be a control tower operator during the Korean War.

After leaving the Air Force, he returned to the United States and fell in love with the daughter of a Baptist minister, Joyce Rae Lilly, who was attending nursing school. Joyce and Jesse were married in 1953. Jesse earned his bachelor’s degree and master’s in education from Indiana State University. He later coached the school’s gymnastics team.

In the early 1960s, Spencer started looking for opportunities to build housing and heard there was a need in Hawaii. Joyce had never flown on a plane before, but Jesse convinced her to bring the couple’s five children to Honolulu, where they built homes for working-class families in Hawaii Kai and a church in Haleiwa.

Son Mark Spencer said he wasn’t sure what piqued his dad’s interest in affordable housing, but he knows his dad “felt so good when he saw families in homes.”

Growing up, “he never felt like he could have somebody come over to his house,” Mark Spencer said. “He had great parents, but they didn’t have a lot of money . . . He loved to see a solid foundation for a family, and one of those things was a house.”

A dip in local housing demand sent the Spencer family back to the Mainland in 1966. Living in Kentucky, at a time when racial tensions were high and black and white families lived, worked and went to school separately, Jesse Spencer didn’t like what he saw.

“He grew up in a poor neighborhood around people of all sorts of races and colors,” Doug Spencer said. “He didn’t know anything about racism.”

So he addressed the issue in his own way – through housing. He built homes and recruited many African-American families to live in them, which made many people unhappy but fit with Spencer’s desire to “provide equal opportunities for all people,” Doug Spencer said.

Eventually, Jesse and Joyce’s love for Hawaii brought them back to the islands in 1974.

While on Oahu, the family built more churches, many fast-food restaurants and more affordable housing, which was then known simply as “housing for working families,” Doug Spencer said. In total, the family company built around 175 homes on Oahu, he said.

In 1987, the Spencers moved to Maui and soon built their first housing project, in Kihei. Jesse and Joyce worked hard to fill what they saw as a huge need on Maui for affordable housing. Residents were contacting them daily asking for decently priced units, Doug Spencer said. Jesse always had big dreams, and Joyce helped him realize them with a dose of practicality.

“He was always thinking of the next big thing,” Mark Spencer said. “With those really visionary-type people, there has to be some balance there. My mom was truly that balance.”

Even Jesse Spencer’s children – Alan, Valerie, Doug, Mark and Dennis, in order of age – all of whom got involved in the family business, say it was difficult to keep up with his energy and ideas.

Spencer Homes, now known as Spencer Development, went on to build several hundred homes in Kihei. Those projects include Keonekai Villages, Piilani Villages Phases 2 and 3 and Kenolio Estates. In Central Maui, the company built homes in Nanea at Kehalani, Waikapu Gardens and Waikapu Gardens Phase 2.

Maui Realtor and longtime family friend Anthony Sayles wrote in a blog post that Spencer helped Sayles’ best friend Curtis O’Shaughnessy find a home after an exhaustive search.

“The economy was so bad I’ll never forget it,” Sayles wrote. “Curtis and I had looked at so many distressed properties, and nothing was the right fit.”

O’Shaughnessy said Thursday that Spencer took the time to meet with him in 2009 and show him the planned Kenolio Makai project, where O’Shaughnessy still lives. Spencer later helped him customize his home.

“He did a couple of things he didn’t have to do, but he knew I was a young adult with a pretty strict income,” O’Shaughnessy said.

For the past several years, the family’s other business, MVI LLC, has been working to get a 1,000-unit Maalaea project off the ground. It has been downsized to 58 affordable and 55 market-priced lots.

According to Mark Spencer, Jesse Spencer was still trying to get his children to set up meetings with Maui County Council members up until a few weeks before his death.

The family said it was his nature – a constant drive and competitive streak. He was a former tennis coach, a gymnast, high diver and golfer whose athletic feats gave him “Popeye forearms” that kids used to ask him to flex growing up, Mark Spencer remembered. He always made life fun for the family, constantly talking about adventures he hoped to go on.

“His greatest joy in life was spending time with his family,” Doug Spencer said. “He considered his kids his best friends.”

On Monday, Spencer died at home surrounded by family. He had asked doctors to turn off the defibrillator that had been giving his heart regular shocks for weeks.

According to Doug Spencer, doctors expected him to survive one more day, but he held on for six, again defying what others said was possible.

“He was such a mover and a doer that not only was it hard for us to keep up with him, but it was tiring at times,” Mark Spencer said. “But as we reflect back now, it was all worth it.”

The public is invited to a celebration of Spencer’s life at 3 p.m. Jan. 30 at Hope Chapel Kihei. In lieu of flowers, the Spencer family requests that donations be made to Hospice Maui or Hope Chapel Kihei.

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.

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