After a lifetime on Jacksonville’s docks, this college dropout tries to help others go to school

Matt Soergel
Source: Florida Times-Union

Charles Spencer, a longshoremen’s union leader and three-time college dropout, founded a college scholarship fund in 1995 that’s still going strong today.

Charles Spencer, the ninth of 10 children, grew up four blocks from the Talleyrand docks in a wooden shotgun house resting atop brick piers.

Jacksonville’s port was smaller then and security just about nonexistent, and nobody minded that he and the neighborhood kids would go play there and grab the occasional orange or grapefruit just in by boat.

It’s not as if they had any parks to play in, after all.

Nobody in Spencer’s large family worked at the docks, but he went ahead and got a job there anyway at 19, where the older men there called him “Jitterbug.”

He didn’t expect to stay long, but he found he liked working the crane. He was good at it, stacking big container boxes atop each other from his controls. He would have worked for free, he said. Good thing they didn’t know that.

And life takes its twists and turns.

At 29, Spencer was elected president of the local longshoremen’s union. He stayed in union leadership, and now at 77 he’s executive vice president emeritus of the International Longshoremen’s Association South Atlantic and Gulf Coast District. (His youngest brother, George, followed him to the port and is now president of the local union.)

Spencer has another passion that drives him: a scholarship fund he started 26 years ago, beginning with $20,000 from fellow union workers.

Over the years, after recruiting a variety of sponsors, the International Longshoremen’s Association’s Scholarship Fund has given out more than $1 million to help students pay for college.

Spencer’s proud of that, especially as he is someone who dropped out of college three times — Bethune-Cookman once, Edward Waters twice — yet sent three of his children all the way through school.Create Account

He struggled to pay for their educations, but it was worth it, he said.

“I’ve got an honorary degree, but they’ve got degrees they earned,” he said. “These days and times, you need a college education.”

He said he doesn’t want anyone else to struggle to get that step ahead. And if he can help, he can.

“To me, you haven’t made it, you’re not successful, if you don’t help nobody else. You could have a zillion dollars. Howard Hughes, richest man ever lived, or one of the richest men, but he still died! And all that money and everything was left here, right?” Spencer said. “Howard Hughes! But if you do something to help somebody while you’re going along, then your life probably wouldn’t have been in vain.”

‘He believes in his community’
This last year, despite having to cancel its annual fundraising golf tournament because of the pandemic, the fund awarded nearly $30,000 in scholarships to 18 area high school seniors and college students.

The scholarship fund plans to hold a tournament, its 25th, this year. It’s scheduled for May 3 at Hidden Hills Golf Club. For more information visit

Jadene King, executive director of the ILA Scholarship fund, has worked with Spencer for years.

“Charles is motivated,” she said. “He’s a giver. He believes in his community … I think he gets joy just watching others getting helped.”

Spencer just figures he’s been fortunate with where life has taken him.

“You don’t go around but once in life,” he said. “I look at where I was, and where I am today. That boy comes from the Eastside of Jacksonville and now lives in Queens Harbor, the only yacht-country club they’ve got there.” He chuckled. “That’s a good leap.”

‘This is my calling’
For sure, it’s a long way from the old house at 1751 E. 21st St., which is now gone, making way for a car lot. Spencer lived there until he was about 8 years old.

Charles Spencer stands at the corner of East 21st and Thelma streets, where he lived as a boy, just four blocks from the Talleyrand docks where he made his living.

After coming home from the Army, his oldest brother bought the family a house around the corner, bigger than the other one, and they moved on up to Buckman Street.

At this memory, Spencer jokingly invoked the theme song from “The Jeffersons.” It was kind of like that, he said.

He went on to play football at Matthew Gilbert High School and still has a class ring for winning the state championship. He was a pretty good wide receiver, but there was one problem.

“You‌ ‌probably‌ ‌heard‌ ‌of‌ ‌a‌ ‌guy‌ ‌named‌ ‌Bob‌ ‌Hayes?‌” Spencer said.

Hayes, who went on to Olympics and NFL fame, had wide receiver pretty well locked up, so Spencer was switched to guard. He was good enough that he got college scholarship offers, but he didn’t stick for long on campus.

“College‌ ‌wasn’t‌ ‌my‌ ‌destiny,” he said. “‌I‌ ‌quit‌ ‌three‌ ‌times.”‌ ‌

A brother talked him into applying at the post office, and he got a job there sorting mail, with government benefits. But that wasn’t for him.

So he went to work at the port. “I was making what I thought was a stop, just until I could get my head straight on what I really wanted to do,” he said.

He liked the challenge of it, the logistics. And he liked being the guy in the control booth of the crane, where so much depended on him.

Same thing with the union — “I’m in that seat all by myself. You’ve got the other officers around, but the buck stops with you.”

It is, he said, what everything in life, beginning in that shotgun house on East 21st Street, prepared him for.

“You have to find your destiny in life, what’s your calling,” Spencer said. “This is my calling.”

Consider this, he said: Twice a dropout from the school, he is now on the board of trustees at Edward Waters College.

“That’s not the way it’s supposed to be,” he said, laughing. “Most people are Dr. This, Professor That. I’m just Charles Spencer.”