There was an ad in the Oak Leaves for a lab technician. I had just a little lab experience and I was attending school full time and had a wife and children. Dr. Herta Spencer interviewed me and said that I could work my hours around my school schedule. When she needed other technicians, it soon became a family affair.
Herta allowed many of us to work while we went to school, and both my brother Stanley and my brother-in-law Jay Means, who was still in high school when he began, worked in her laboratory as did his sister, my wife Melanie. Jay credits Herta for his interest in research, and she continued to mentor him as he received his Ph.D. in food chemistry and nutrition and went on to pursue an active academic career in toxicology. He patterned his laboratory on the example he learned from her.
Our friendship with Herta continued beyond the lab, and Melanie and I often got together with her for chats or for meals. We went to Cosmos, her favorite restaurant, where the owner would give her all of the information about ingredients, and especially sodium and fat content. She would always blot the meat with a paper napkin, to get off any excess fat.
We would occasionally drive past some of her former study patients, as they sat out in Forest Park, and she would ask me to stop. She would inquire about their health, or she would scold them for smoking, or about their weight. They always responded respectfully and, often, apologetically. She kept many of them on the ward longer than their participation was needed, because it was winter and she knew that they lived outside or in questionable conditions. She gave 100% to her work and her caring, and she was surprised and not very understanding when others did not.
I remember one time when someone told her about a new supplier for glassware and other lab supplies—one that would give us quantity prices for smaller quantities, as I recall. I pointed out that our present supplier gave us all of our rubber tubing, corks and brushes without charge.
"Is that true?" she said, in a meditative not a questioning way. "Very good. Then let's keep getting our brushes, tubing and corks from them."This amused her colleague Dr. Samachson greatly, and he told her they weren't going to give them to us if we weren't buying our other supplies from them.
"Ah hah! You see," she said, significantly, looking around the group and nodding with her eyebrows moving up and down, as was her signature expression, to emphasize these "questionable supplier motives." Herta couldn't accept the fact that not everyone was as devoted and freely giving as she was.
When our 17-year-old Rebecca was hospitalized with a collapsed lung, and the doctor and the specialists were stymied, Herta asked to see the test results and diagnosed Rebecca's malady and suggested how they should change their course of treatment. Becka, get better.
Herta often worked with family physicians to help Melanie's Aunt Evelyn with her osteoporosis, my father-in-law with his lymph cancer get into a leading program and study at Duke, and other friends and family members with lesser medical dilemmas. So that the phrase: "Why don't you ask Herta?" became a comforting "mantra" in our family and the six families-of-their-own that evolved. She was invited to every wedding, and several Thanksgivings, and came to them all. And when people asked who the lady with the mysterious accent was, they always said she was dear friend of our family. We all thought of her that way.
Melanie remembers her beautiful eyes that were always focused on her "patient," her subject; her elegant hands that sculpted the air at times as she made her point. I remember her hair pulled into a bun, which always found a few strands coming lose and being brushed back, casually, with her hand as she chatted, going down the hall in her long lab coat.
I am so glad that we received a couple of calls from Herta in her last few months. Our two visits did not find her "on top of her game," but the welcome voice of Lou, her weekend attendant, saying: "John Dennis. Herta told me this morning: 'I must talk to John Dennis,'" was like rolling back the clock, and I was so pleased to talk with her again. We remember that when Herta called and no one was at home, she wouldn't always hear the tone. So a very common message went something like this: "No beep. Nooo beep" or "Hello. Hello-hello." And we find ourselves repeating her "okay-okay" and other Hertaisms, daily. We will miss hearing her voice.