General Larry Spencer: A 44 year journey from one stripe to 4 stars

Eric Dehm
February 22, 2019 - 11:29 am

U.S. Air Force photo/Michael J. Pausic

Here are some of the important and/or interesting things that happened in America in 1971: The Baltimore Colts beat the Cowboys in Super Bowl V, Walt Disney World opened, the first E-mail was sent, and a young man from Washington D.C. named Larry Spencer enlisted in the United States Air Force. 

Spencer had no way of knowing it then, but his Air Force career would become the stuff of legends. If that seems like hyperbole, consider that when Spencer retired the Air Force named not one, but two awards for him, "The Air Force General Larry Spencer Innovation Award" and "The Air Force General Larry Spencer Special Acts and Services Award". 

Airman Spencer, with one solitary stripe on his arm in '71, would rise to the greatest heights possible in a 44-year career that ended with four stars on his shoulders. While you might assume that someone who accomplished so much had his eyes on the prize from the start, Spencer says that's not the case.

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"I just tried to work hard and do the best I could," Spencer says of his early days in service. "I never plotted out anything, I never had any grand plans. Never, in my wildest dreams, did I think I'd be an officer let alone a four-star. So I just took one job at a time, did the best I could and just sort of bloomed where I was planted." 

DOD Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Daniel Hinton

Spencer completed his degree and headed off to Officer's Training School in 1980 where he would be named the Distinguished Graduate for his class. In 2004 he earned his first star, and in 2012 put on his fourth. Spencer says attaining the rank of General held a special meaning to him. 

"When I joined the Air Force in 1971 there had never been an African-American four-star at all," Spencer says. "Had not been a female four-star. By the way, now in 2019 there still haven't been very many. There's been eight African-American four-stars, think about that, since 1947 when the Air Force was stood up."

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While eight is better than zero, it's a number Spencer would like to see increase, and he believes it will. Having seen so much progress in regards to women and minorities in service during his four-plus decades in service, Spencer is confident that the Air Force will continue to head in the right direction. 

US Air Force photo by Bud Hancock

"It's still a challenge, as it is with any industry," Spencer says of increasing diversity in leadership. "One of the things I like about the military, and the Air Force in particular, is they tend to judge you on your potential, and your performance, and your professionalism in how you do your job. And I have found if you're good at your job, good things will happen. I think we've come a long way. Do I think we have more work to do? Absolutely, but I would recommend the military or the Air Force to anybody."

In fact, recommending the Air Force to people while working to make it stronger and better is Spencer's current job. Since 2015, the same year he retired, he has served as President of the Air Force Association, a 100,000-plus member organization that advocates, educates and supports on behalf of the Air Force.

Apparently, those 44 years in uniform simply weren't enough, as Spencer says he will continue to serve the military and veteran communities for as long as he can.

You can hear the full interview with General Larry Spencer below.

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