A Profile in “The Churchman” (October 1935)

“WILLIAM BENJAMIN SPOFFORD, Spectacular, Versatile, He speaks no riddles, Scorns Mad Hatter’s Hat”

by Manuel de J. Manduley

New York City–His ambition is to be a sports writer and he claims he’s an authority on baseball. In fact, he claims he’s ‘nuts about it’. Unkind critics go further; they say the Rev. William B. Spofford is completely ‘nutty’.

Such is not the case — unless one is to confuse enthusiastic versatility and a penchant for the spectacular with this pleasantly indefinite form of insanity. For, indeed, Mr. Spofford’s brain, lodged between two very substantial and unstreamlined ears, is certainly not that of a madman. yet no one can deny it has produced a great many original thoughts and unconventional actions.

HARANGUES:–After graduation from Trinity College and Berkeley Divinity School, Bill Spofford –as he’s better known –went up to St. Paul’s School, Concord, N.H. with the serious intent of teaching general sciences. He was soon distracted. The country was then at war with Germany and he saw no sense in it –or in any war, for that matter. A sincere socialist and pacifist, he expressed his views to the flag-waving denizens of the town. They almost mobbed him. The Rev. Dr. Samuel Drury, principal of the school, was kinder. Looking sad and solemn in his cassock and gaiters, he asked Mr. Spofford to leave.

‘I liked him a lot’, Mr. Spofford is quick to add. ‘But how times have changed! Dr. Drury is now a member of the Church League for Industrial Democracy, whose political spectrum ranges from Rooseveltian orange to deep Stalin red.’

While in divinity school, Mr. Spofford, suffering from uncomfortable visions of vestrymen and bishops, thought it would be pleasanter if he and three friends took over small churches without salary and ran them to suit themselves. Somehow his comrades didn’t manage to do it, but he went to Chicago and took charge of St. George’s Church with its 400 communicants. They enjoyed his harangues against this and that. Only one subject was taboo –the Irish question. Each Celtic member had his own cherished opinion and a stout fist to make it more convincing.

JACK-IN-THE-BOX AGILITY–To support himself, his wife and his first child, the Rev. William Benjamin Spofford drove a payroll truck. He didn’t mind the job, and it had a dubious advantage. You couldn’t get fired. More drives were needed every day to take the place of those ‘bumped off’ by gunmen. A practical woman, Mrs. Spofford made her husband quit. Mr. Spofford then became labor manager for a large Chicago clothing firm. As such, he was supposed to mediate between unyielding operators and embattled workers. Like many a well intentioned referee, he was hit by both contestants –and not always above the belt. He didn’t like it.

While field secretary of the Church League for Industrial Democracy, Mr. Spofford went home one night and found the printer for THE WITNESS, a neighbor of his, in a dither. Copy hadn’t come…The presses had to start to rolling…Train schedules…Mr. Spofford calmed him. Very simple…he would write copy. Bishop Johnson, the editor, made him managing editor. But three jobs were too much –even for a man of jack-in-the-box agility. In 1926, he resigned form St. George’s and came to New York as executive secretary of the C.L.I.D.

AUGUST COMPANY:–In his book, FAITH AND SOCIETY, Maurice B. Reckitt writes: ‘Although the executive editor of an influential church paper, THE WITNESS, Mr. Spofford finds time to be in the thick of every important industrial dispute with the league’s message of social justice, and faces the outraged protests of ‘respectable’ church members and the revolvers of strikebreakers with an equally imperturbable resolution.’

As to the ‘outraged protests’ Mr. Spofford does remain unperturbed. he just laughs mischieviously. As to revolvers–that depends. Truly a habitue of every major strike in recent years, he sauntered down to Prenter, W. Va. four years ago during the coal strike. The strikers’ committee, after some difficulty in finding a spot within a radius of seveal miles that did not belong to the company, finally held an open meeting by a farmhouse. The speakers were to hold forth from a truck, geared for instant departure–just in case. But who would speak first? Well, the committee reckoned, there might be a little shotting so ‘the Reverend” could speak first. He did but he can’t quite remember what he said. “I must admit I was pretty shaky.’

At the Danville, Va., textile strike in 1931 Mr. Spofford appeared with $1,000 for the strikers’ relief. Naturally he wanted to speak–he always does. The local rector hemmed and hawed. The vestrymen, you know…Could he read a certain resolution of the 1928 General Convention? Thre wasn’t any harm in that. Next day newspapers ran streamer headlines: CHURCH BACKS STRIKERS. The resolution endorced collective bargaining. That was exactly what the strikers were fighting for.

Mr. Spofford is both proud and amused to be named in THE RED NETWORK, a list of supposed dangerous radicals compiled by Elizabeth Dilling, Chicago Red baiter. With him is such august company as Lenin, Stalin, Senator Borah and Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt. Recently a hastily organized Red Squad of the New York police was raring to go. But who were the Reds? Where were they? Someone informed them of the existence of this priceless tome. They looked, and got no further. There in boldface type was the name–Fiorello La Guardia (at the time, mayor of New York).

DIGNITY OF THE CLOTH–’I entered the ministry fora chance to be of service,’ Mr. Spofford says without hesitancy when answering a question that generally overtaxes a clergyman’s memory. ‘There was nothing theological about it.’ Threfore he has never worn clericals. Never? Well–hardly evder. Just about three times. Once to ha ve a picture taken. ‘Another time I was to speak in Denver and I got myself rigged up in the darned thing. When I appeared before Bishop Johnson , he looked at me in amazement and said: ‘Bill, go back to the hotel and take off those things’.’ The last time he wore them was in a way, a faut de mieux. It was London , and he had no dinner jacket. In a very proper reversed collar he rose to address his radical colleagues. Notwithstanding the dignity ofthe cloth, he was thoroughly and mercilessly booed.

In one instance, however, this same dignity of the cloth saved Mr. Spofford’s neck, and he’s sincerely grateful. It seems that in trying to help some union men whose organization had fallen into the hands of racketeers he allowed them to use THE WITNESS office as a mailing address.

Then one fine day ‘four hard boiled birds’ –as Mr. Spofford calls them–walked into his tiny office. Was this where the New Deal Group hanged out? Mr. Spofford looked up from his rickety typewriter. No, it wassn’t. The gentlemen were belligerently unconvinced. They talked tough. Mr. Spofford pointed toward the wall. ‘Can’t you see that this is a church office? Look at that picture. See? That’s a bishop!’ Flabbergasted, the uninvited guests removed their hats, bowed low and walked out. The picture was Bishop Manning’s.

ORACLE–At times Mr. Spofford can look as solemn as the Mad Hatter (whom he’s supposed to resemble, according to those who don;t like his ‘antics’.) But there are two differences. First, he never wears a hat. Secondly, he doesn’t indulge in riddles.

‘Mr. Rooseelt and his New Deal associates tell us they’re going to create a society that will give security for all within the profit system. This by resricting p;roduction and thus raising prices to maintain profits. That is, they’re trying to solve the paradox of poverty in the midst of plenty by removing the plenty….Fascism is capitalism gone nudlist–no more pretense, no more democracy, no more civil liberties…’

Mr. Spofford interrupts his discourse. Someone on the phone starts off: ‘What’s this I hear about…?’ The managing editor of THE WITNESS smilingly obliges.

Bill Jr:

There is no record of Manuel de J. Manduley….it could have been the editor of THE CHURCHMAN, Guy Emery Shipler, with a nom-de-plume.   In fact, this could have been a 1935 test run of A BLIND MAN’S GROPING by Dad himself, in one of his more imaginative moods. Whatever . . . .

Note from Tim:

The Internet had a very different form when Dad wrote the preceding paragraph and Google wouldn’t be invented for another decade.  Now we can ascertain that Manuel de J. Manduley was a naturalized US citizen from Cuba who, with his wife Lyn Smith Manduley, wrote free lance articles for a number of periodicals: http://lal.tulane.edu/collections/manuscripts/manduley.  Although I like the idea that Grandpa Bill wrote the article himself, it seems that the author was probably the person credited for it.

I also like the fact that my grandfather thought highly enough of this portrait to include it with his planned autobiography.