Today’s story about the South Pasadena police shooting on Broadway (exactly where is that?) reminded us of an old story we first heard from Muir print shop teacher Jim Kerr.
If you do, you’ll know that he could also tell it much better than this in his own aw-shucks matter-of-fact elongated way. He had a personal stake in the proceedings too because he’d been planning to head over there later that day…
A Principal’s Bloody Rampage
July 20, 1997 by Cecilia Rasmussen
Drug abuse and school violence often are cited as two of the most virulent symptoms of contemporary America’s alleged moral decay.
But contrary to popular perceptions, the primer on both was not written on the bloody playgrounds of the South Bronx nor in the decaying classrooms adjoining Chicago’s sprawling housing projects nor on the mean streets outside gang-ridden schools in South-Central or East Los Angeles.
In fact, one of the most deadly and sensational incidents in the history of public education occurred nearly 60 years ago, on May 6, 1940, in South Pasadena. And its perpetrator was neither a vengeful drug dealer nor some prematurely hardened gang member, but Verlin Spencer, a disgruntled 38-year-old junior high school principal, who may have become deranged under the influence of an addictive over-the-counter drug.
Whatever its cause, Spencer’s 30-minute shooting rampage left five of his colleagues dead and another terribly wounded…
Just seven years before his half-hour of mayhem, Spencer–a small, quiet, bespectacled man–moved with his wife from Ventura to begin a job with the South Pasadena school district. But his perfectionism and relentless administrative style soon became a source of friction with the staff. By 1939, clashes with the school’s faculty prompted Supt. George Bush to place Spencer on an involuntary three-week leave of absence.
According to Kerr the guy was a real jerk. A walking menace. Nothing like Nelson.
If anything, the break made the principal more difficult. When he returned to work, Spencer was more touchy and irritable than ever, criticizing everyone who crossed his path.
An expert marksman, he soon began carrying a .22-caliber Colt Woodsman semiautomatic pistol in his car, and often stopped by a local shooting range to practice.
Colleagues attributed Spencer’s even more abrasive manner to the worsening of his chronic headaches, perhaps as a consequence of long hours spent studying for his master’s degree in education. His supervisors urged him to shape up, but to no avail. On April 30, Spencer was fired.
Outraged, Spencer refused to accept the dismissal and demanded a hearing, which was set for May 6.
That day, Spencer arrived as scheduled at the district’s now-demolished brick headquarters on Diamond Avenue. He was carrying his pistol and 50 rounds of ammunition. Spencer walked into the administrative offices, where his hearing was to occur, and shot to death Supt. Bush, John E. Alman, principal of South Pasadena High School, and Will R. Speer, school district business manager. Another board member happened to be late for the meeting, which may have saved his life.
Spencer then raced across the hall to where Dorothy Talbert, the school board secretary, was sitting stunned at her desk. As he fired, she ducked; the bullet shattered her shoulder, leaving her paralyzed for life.
The principal then walked calmly from the building to his car, which had a dead battery. Some high school students, oblivious to what had happened inside, gave him a jump-start. Spencer then drove just a few blocks to the junior high school at Fair Oaks Avenue and Bank Street, where he hunted down the two people he thought had plotted against him.
While junior high students waited for the 3:15 p.m. bell to ring, Spencer found printing teacher Verner V. Vanderlip and, sticking the gun in his ribs, walked him to the basement storage room. There, they struggled before Spencer shot and killed him.
That’s where Kerr comes in. Apparently this guy was a friend of his and he’d often stop by and visit him on the way home. So he goes over there that day and finds out.
It’s been 50 years now, but somehow Kerr started telling the class this story as a sidenote to another discussion about all the old print shops he’d been in in all the old high schools. He’d talked about this friend of his before, nonchalantly about this or that printing anecdote, probably about who’d just gotten a Heidelberg 20 years before; and then he told us one day that, oh yeah, there’s an interesting something else.
Remember this also from Kerr? He always had his students set it up in type:
You want what you want when you want it,
You get what you get when you get it,
But when you’ve got what you want,
You don’t want what you’ve got.
So what have you got when you’ve got it?
Wonder what ever happened to all those old type cases btw? And the quoins.
We know what happened to guys like Jim Kerr. They don’t exist any more.