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Manchester Valley students, staff recall math teacher's passion, energy

Manchester Valley High School junior Jenna Klaverweiden said something was missing when school let out on Friday. She had become used to seeing math teacher Devin Spence sending his students off at the start of each weekend with words of encouragement … and a challenge.

"Have a good weekend" she recalled him saying, "and make good choices."

At a memorial service Saturday afternoon for Spence — who died this week in a car accident on his way to the school — teachers, students and family members recalled the choices he had made for himself.

His parents said that while he excelled in college and could have chosen many paths, Spence devoted himself to teaching; to remind those around him of their possibilities and opportunities; and to lift those who needed help, not only with math, but also with life.

"He achieved his greatest goal in life," said Marjorie Spence, his mother, "which was to make a difference in the world, especially for children."

Spence, 24, of Westminster, died Feb. 11 when his 2001 Ford Focus collided with a private school bus on Sullivan Road, between Westminster and Manchester. According to the Carroll County Sheriff's Office, Spence lost control of the vehicle while rounding a corner, most likely due to a patch of ice, and collided with the front of the bus.

No one was injured on the bus, which was transporting students to Delone Catholic High School in Pennsylvania. Spence was declared dead at the scene.

The memorial service, held at Manchester Valley High, packed the school's theater auditorium, so much so that staff set up speakers in the cafeteria so the overflow crowd could hear.

Outside, on the hillside facing Hanover Pike, new snow had been cleared from the ground to show the letters "DS" with a large heart that had been written in the grass.

"I'm not only sorry for our family," said his father, Michael Spence, as he addressed the thousands who attended the service, "I'm sorry for all of you sitting here, because I know you are all in pain, too."

Reflections on Spence recalled his passion for lacrosse, his love of math, his devotion to his adopted school and his affinity for loud and eye-catching sweaters — a running joke that saw dozens of his mourners sporting outlandish designs in his honor.

A native of Towson, Spence and his family moved to Westminster when he was young and he graduated in 2007 from Winters Mill High School, where he won a state championship with the Falcons' lacrosse team — on Saturday, his former coach and teacher there, Sal Picataggi, said the school was retiring Spence's No. 21 in his honor.

He attended Messiah College and graduated with a teaching degree from Towson University, then began his teaching career.

His family shared details of the "bachelor pad" Spence had set up in the family basement, and how he came home every day to share his excitement about teaching — and boasting of his students' accomplishments.

Many also recalled Spence's devotion to a brother, Chase, a special needs sibling who fostered his family's involvement with Special Olympics, and who became well known to the Manchester Valley community.

Though Spence had only worked at Manchester Valley since August 2012, his humor, gregarious nature and positive attitude made him an instant favorite. He was fond of poker, fantasy football and the outdoors, and helped with the school's ski club and was the assistant coach of the varsity girl's lacrosse team.

Kim Pennewell, a teacher in the MVHS math department, drew laughs when she said Spence's arrival prompted something she had never heard before — students using the words "cool" and "math teacher" in the same sentence.

She recalled Spence's energy during his job interview, and said when he left the room, "We looked at each other and said, 'How can someone so young have it so all together?' … I could tell Devin was going to make me a better teacher."

"He helped us in so many ways," said Klaverweiden, who had Spence as an advisor. She said talking to him always gave her "something to be positive about. He was … a selfless, caring and spirited person. He brought us together as a school, as a community and as Mavericks."

Shawn Hampt, a science teacher at the school — who wore a bright white sweater with dark accents that elicited laughs from the crowd — recalled faculty breakfasts at the Dutch Corner Restaurant on Manchester's main street, where Spence shared his appreciation and aspirations for his students.

He told them Spence's enduring message would be to "work your butts off in everything you do."

And to his fellow educators, Hampt said Spence's message would be more specific: "If we want students to want to reach their potential, make sure they know someone cares."

That attribute seemed to rub off. Ryan Day, another junior at the school, said that when talking with Spence, "you knew he believed in you."

In her comments, junior Kristin Wigand offered a somber perspective, describing a "cloud of sorrow that hung over the school" this week, and admitting she had "gotten mad when I've seen people laugh or smile."

"I know it'll be OK," she said, "(but) it's too soon to say it'll be OK."

One speaker noted a math lesson from Spence — that between the numbers zero and one live infinite other numbers. Wigand seemed to acknowledge that while Spence's days at the school numbered far too small, they had countless moments that would endure.

"It didn't take him a lifetime to affect our lives forever," she said.

Spence's father touched on a similar theme when he told the crowd how this past week he had discovered a journal his son started in 2007, shortly after his graduation from Winters Mill. It included subjects fresh in the minds of a high school student — graduation, that lacrosse championship, a cruise he would be taking, his experience on a mission in the Dominican Republic with the group, Young Life, and a direct word of thanks to God he wrote for his family, "his awesome friends and a beautiful life."

The journal also contained a note that included words of inspiration, including one comment that seemed to speak of the quality of time spent on earth, not the quantity:

"There are plenty of people who love you for who you are," Spence had written, "not for how many minutes you play."

Devin Spence is survived by parents Michael and Marjorie Spence, brothers Travis and Chase Spence and sister Aubrey Spence, and numerous aunts and uncles.

Private interment was held at St. Benjamin's (Kriders) Lutheran Church Cemetery, and arrangements were by Pritts Funeral Home & Chapel, Westminster. In lieu of flowers, the family has requested contributions be made to the Special Olympics, at http://www.specialolympics.org

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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