VIDEO: Paul SpenceVideo and Editing by Lawrence Dorsey
EDITOR'S NOTE: This profile of an area veteran is part of a series of articles titled "Those Who Served," appearing monthly in the Courier
Spend a few minutes inside Paul Spence’s cozy art studio in downtown Hinesville and you’ll meet a soft-spoken 81-year-old who prides himself on doing things a little differently.
“This is my life. I’m very passionate about the painting, but more passionate about teaching other people,” Spence said. “I teach with probably different techniques than any other artist.”
A lifelong lover of art, Spence didn’t always have time to pursue his passion. His early years were spent in an orphanage, and, beginning at 17, a military career that spanned 20 years, including three tours in Vietnam, a place he never really wanted to be.
Yet, Spence served his country admirably and credits the military for teaching him discipline and humility. “It made me what I am today,” he said.
After retiring from the Army in 1973 as an engineer (rank of E7), Spence and his wife Colette, and three children, have been a fixture in the Hinesville/Fort Stewart area, and in November 2016, he opened Paul’s Art Studio at 114 S. Commerce St.
Spence’s journey from orphan, to engineer in the Army, to business owner, to civil service worker at Fort Stewart, and back again to business owner, is chronicled.
“My life has been great. Even with my trauma through my life, the fact that my mother and father suffered … God has blessed me.”
A rough start in life
Born in Raleigh, NC, Spence’s mother and father separated when he was 4 years old. He and his sister, the youngest of seven siblings, stayed with their father until his death from cancer. Paul was only 9. His mother, an alcoholic, was not a part of their life. As a result, the two were placed in an orphanage, Spence said.
He ran away seven times from the orphanage. He was brought back six times. The successful attempt occurred when he was 15 when he left with his older brother Charles to visit another sister who was in the hospital.
“My brother, who was in the service at the time, came by and told me about it and said I’m hitchhiking to Washington DC. Of course, I told him I was going with him.”
Charles said no, but he soon found Paul standing near him on the road, so Charles relented.
His sister later died, but the trip resulted in a reunion with his mother, who was now sober and had straightened out her life, Spence said. He did not have to return to the orphanage and instead moved in with his mother.
Enlisting with his friends
Today, Spence is the only surviving member of his large family. His two brothers set an example for military life, but it was his teen-age friends who encouraged him to enlist.
“My brother Tommy was in the Army during World War II and he was a paratrooper,” Spence said. “He was jumping in Germany and got shot, and the bullet lodged next to his lungs. He went on 100 percent disability and eventually the bullet worked its way into the lung and he passed away in 1975 or ‘76.”
His other brother, Charles, was a Vietnam veteran who served many years.
While living in Chicago and working as a personnel manager for a theater chain, Spence says one of his friends, who was an usher, decided he wanted to go into military service, so he talked Spence and another friend to enlist in the Army, at age 17. Ironically, Spence said, the friend who suggested joining, failed his physical and could not enlist.
Like many at the time, (the year was 1953) Spence was not able to complete high school, but eventually obtained his GED.
The first of three tours of duty in Vietnam
During the first eight years of military service, Spence spent time in many locations: Guam, Fort Ord, Calif., Germany, and France, where he met his wife in 1961. As a married couple, the two came to Fort Stewart (for the first time) in 1964.
Military life took a stark turn when Spence served his first tour in Vietnam beginning in 1966.
Asked to describe that time in Vietnam, Spence said, “That, I don’t talk about much.” He continued, “Let me put it this way … it was a war zone and I don’t like to spend too much thinking about that. I didn’t want to be there, let’s put it that way, but I had my orders.”
He spent about a year there, and was stationed in Germany the next three years. A second tour in Vietnam followed, and then a third.
Serving in Vietnam brought about a reaction he didn’t expect.
“When I came back from Vietnam, in ‘66, we had to change out of our uniforms into civilian clothes to travel because of the general attitude of people towards the war,” Spence recalled. “Going through the airport I got accosted by one of these, what we called back then, peaceniks.”
Another time involved having to endure criticism with no place to escape.
“When I came back the second time, we had a four-hour layover in Atlanta. Six of us got a cab (to Hinesville) and the whole trip in the cab, the cab driver spoke about how bad the war was.”
But, Spence said, he told the driver, “Hey, we’re the military. They say go there and we go there -- whether it’s France, Germany, Okinawa, or Vietnam.
“That’s how we answered, and I don’t think they truly understood that. But you do what you’re told. That’s what you signed up for … to defend your country.”
But thankfully, times have changed
“We were treated kind of bad when we got back, but I found in the last 20 years, people are very gracious,” Spence believes. “They have accepted the fact that we did our job as required and I very seldom go anywhere (when) I wear my uniform or my hat (without) somebody coming up to me and saying ‘Thank you for your service.’
“At one time, I would not wear anything like that because they would say why in the hell would you do that in Vietnam?” Spence added. “I would try not to answer that.”
He said the first time he realized how good people were toward veterans who served in Vietnam was when he went to the St. Patrick’s Day parade in Savannah about 20 years ago.
“When you walk down that parade route and people applaud, and people run out there to slap this lipstick on your face, you get to that point when you say that the bad part we had is over. It’s nothing but good things now.
“People realize we may have made a mistake fighting in Vietnam, but they made a mistake in condemning us for it.”
Pursuing his passion for art
Upon retiring from the military in 1973, Spence and his family moved to Alabama, where he studied art at a community college. He spent several years operating his own business, a maintenance company, back in the Hinesville area, and in logistics supplies at Fort Stewart, but it’s clear his eyes were always focused on his art.
“My whole family is art-oriented,” Spence said. “My daddy was an artist in his own right. My brother (Charles) was probably as good an artist as I have ever seen. He was probably 10 times the artist I could hope to be.”
He added, “Tommy had no artistic ability that I knew of, but was an outstanding woodworker and carpenter. My sister was good at art. I have been doing art all of my life so it is a passion with me. In the Army you don’t have time to practice. When I retired, I started painting.”
At his downtown studio, Spence paints primary landscapes, mostly with acrylics, but he has used oils and watercolors.
“I do a lot of my paintings with various objects. I can do a rough painting in about five minutes,” he said. A big joy of his is being able to teach others. He offers classes to those who want to learn.
What he learned from the Army
Paul and Colette have now been married for 62 years and have raised three children, Sylvie, Shirley and Paul Jr. When not at home or in his art studio, he can still be found taking part in area events to honor veterans, and he credits his time in the military for shaping his life.
“I can honestly say that when I went into service at 17 years old, I was undisciplined,” Spence acknowledged. “I hate to say this about myself, but I thought the world of me.” But, he says his drill sergeant taught him within 30 days “that nobody owes me nothing.”
He concluded, “My military career, even with the three trips that I had in Vietnam were wonderful years and I don’t disagree with our effort in Vietnam, as much as I do the fact that we lost so many of our generation over there.
“I grew up in the military. They were my family, and still are my family.”