Business professor’s friends were his family

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By Allan Woods

Vil Spence didn’t have any friends.

For him to call the four men he came to Canada with from Jamaica “friends” would have been insulting.

After being part of each other’s lives for more than 36 years, they were family, which was just the way Mr. Spence wanted it.

Mr. Spence, a professor in Ryerson’s business faculty since 1980, died May 17 of liver cancer. He was 64.

He often said, “Friends are the family we choose for ourselves.”

“For me he was like a brother and sometimes even like a father,” says Dr. Leo Oates, one of those four men Spence came to Canada with. “He was not afraid to scold me when he thought I was out of line.”

Although his colleagues at Ryerson remember him as a quiet man, there were times when his passions shone through his steely exterior.

“He came out of his shell when he talked about sports,” says Antoinette Andrade, a business school secretary.

Mr. Spence was passionate about the sports he played, such as cricket and soccer, and even those he never played, including hockey, football, gold and baseball.

With that love for sports came the strong opinions he often voiced about the teams he followed most.

While watching the Toronto Blue Jays in the 1993 Wold Series, he told his friends that if he had been managing the team, Joe Carter would have never stepped to the plate because the Jays only needed a single run to tie the game. He knew Carter would be swinging for that home run.

“There were times when we had more fun watching Vil watch the ballgame than we had watching the game itself,” Oates says.

For Mr. Spence, the real joy of watching or playing sports—like anything—was who he did it with. That included fishing.

“We used to get up at two or three in the morning and we would go north or east or anywhere there was water,” says George Binns, another of Mr. Spence’s close friends.

“Sometimes we caught fish, sometimes we didn’t catch fish. It was the fellowship that was important.”

Mr. Spence began his lifelong friendship with Oates and Binns in 1963 when, along with two others, they travelled from Jamaica to Winnipeg to attend the University of Manitoba, where he studied political science and economics.

The men chose the province because it was affordable and because of its large West Indian community.

“It was a great culture shock, but more so a climate shock,” Oates says. “Winnipeg changed our definition of cold.”

The five friends shared a house in the mid-1960s and divided the cooking and cleaning duties, and the use of the car.

“We realized that we needed each other to survive and our friendship became solidified,” Oates says.

During the summers, the men would travel and work at odd jobs to pay for school, including at a Northern Ontario mine. Mr. Spence also spent another two summers in Toronto as an orderly at the East General Hospital, where he met his second wife, Beryl, whom he married in 1972.

After completing his bachelor’s degree in Winnipeg, he moved to Ottawa to take a master’s degree in public administration at Carleton University.

Before coming to Ryerson in 1980, Mr. Spence worked in Toronto as a senior management consultant and in Jamaica as a consultant with the Ministry of Housing, where he was also a part-time lecturer at the University of the West Indies.

“I always knew him as a teacher,” says his wife, Beryl. “He enjoyed watching people learn and do well for themselves. He believed that there was always more to obtain.”

Mr. Spence is survived by his Beryl, his first wife Ena, and their three children, Marcia, Simon and Kathy. 

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