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Photo by Mel Hunt

Looking back at the amazing John Spicer who served the Wellsville community and his country

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John and Eloise Spicer were honored by Wellsville Mayor Randy Shayler when he turned 100 and they were coming up on 75 years of marriage. To the right is one of the famous grandfather clock’s John built in his shop.

By JOHN ANDERSON

John Spicer was tired. He knew he didn’t have much time left, but he still had that twinkle in his eye and flashed his million-dollar smile. John’s life-expectancy was 25.

By that age, he had already survived the Sinclair Oil Refinery Explosion and World War II. He continued to cheat death when he was a firefighter and he drove the last truck out of the Main Street Fire Department headquarters as it burned down.

Then, he survived nine (yes, 9) coronary bypass surgeries. The man who survived so much was closing in on his 100th birthday. That’s when his family had a wonderful idea. They told the community, expecting a few cards. They had a few hundred visitors.

John Spicer loved Wellsville and Wellsville loved him back. For a week, well-wishers came by, shared stories and suddenly he had that life and strength to reach his 100th birthday.

Not impressed? He turned 100 on June 7 in the Crescent Street home he built by hand.

And, just as impressive, John and Eloise (Billings) defied the odds of life and love with 75 years of marriage.

John passed away on Thursday on his own terms, with his family and a full heart. There is no question the love of his family who made sure they were together that week along with the support from the community, kept John alive through his 100th birthday.

After the crowds were gone from his 100th birthday celebration, the family had one last quiet surprise. Wellsville Mayor Randy Shayler stopped at the house with an official proclamation making June 12, 2022 John Spicer Day.

I was able to tag along and asked if I could record John telling me stories about World War II. Those veterans have the greatest stories and each one is a walking history book as many of the things they witnessed weren’t “officially documented” like they are today.

But something happened during our talk about World War II. John shared some Wellsville stories and secrets and how much he loved his wife. I scurried through my videos and recordings and sat back listening to his words.

John Spicer was an active volunteer firefighter for 65 years. That means he was active up to age 90 with the Wellsville Volunteer Fire Department’s McEwen Hose Company.

He fought thousands of fires but he wanted to let me know a secret about one of the most famous ones in the late 1940’s when the Main Street Fire Department burned down.

Spicer leaned over to me and whispered, “How do you fight a fire if you’re not inside? You don’t.”

As the building burned, Spicer risked his life to drive the last truck out. He then turned to run inside and fight the fire.

“The chief wouldn’t let me go in. They wanted that building out of there because they wanted to run Route 19 through there … They wanted that building destroyed,” he said.

Then there was The Pickup Hotel fire on Main Street. Right before Bill Hendrick’s went up on the Emerald Hook & Ladder bucket to fight the fire, Spicer was on the roof. He got down to safety moments before it spread so bad the roof collapsed and Hendrick told them to get him down (from Me & My Uncle).

I thought about Wellsville history for a minute and asked him if he was a firefighter during the Sinclair Oil Refinery fire. He was too young. However, he was supposed to be in the vicinity that day with a friend who was one of four killed during the explosion that made International news on July 18, 1938.

“I was supposed to go fishing … Freddie Mater and I were supposed to go fishing. But I was young and I didn’t make it,” Spicer recalled. “The Sinclair fire started and that afternoon a tank landed on top of him. A Naphtha tank sitting right there by the powerhouse, it come up in the air, come over the Genesee River and landed right on top of him.”

The next strange incident took place when he was heading to World War II after the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

“I turned on the news, heard about Pearl Harbor,” Spicer said. “And I had never heard of Pearl Harbor.”

Spicer remembers, “Donny Jacobs was my best friend, we were the same age, he was just a couple months older than I was. We were both going to go into the Air Force. We were going to meet down at the store and enlist together. I didn’t make it down, so I went and enlisted in Olean for the Navy.”

Jacobs, who also went to Wellsville High School, was killed when his Martin B-26 Marauder was shot down.

“He was killed in Holland, his B-26 was shot down … he went to the Air Force and never came back … I never saw him after we said we would meet at the store,” Spicer said, the first time he had a hint of sadness in his voice. “He has just a little military marker at the cemetery.”

Like so many, Spicer got on the train in Wellsville and to get to New York City an eventually Cape Cod for boot camp. He then went to aviation school in Jacksonville, Fla., and graduated as an Aviation Ordnancemen. He was now a certified weapons specialist and would manage all the ammunition carried on his Naval aircraft.

“First they shipped me to California, so I slept under the Golden Gate Bridge for about a month,” Spicer said. “I lived in the Navy barracks there. I went up to Whidbey Island in the State of Washington for a year and a half, and I served on my ship until the war was over and the ship was decommisioned.

The ship went right into the heart of where the bombing took place and all over the Pacific.

Ironically, his next brush with death was friendly fire from a mistake in another ship. As a result of that brush with death, he carried a crescent wrench with him or near him his entire life, which turned out to give him another 75 years of good luck.

While working on his ship, a plane near the ship was test firing guns. 

“They test fired and forgot the guns were loaded,” Spicer said. “I dropped down to pick up my crescent wrench and the gun fire went right over my back. I would’ve been cut in two.”

Spicer survived the war and headed back to Wellsville. When he got home, it was 10 a.m.

“I went right to the Texas Hot,” Spicer said. “Chief Roeske met the train and also took me home. He knew where my dad lived.”

Once home, the romance began. He had his eye on Eloise Billings, who went to one-room school house in Hallsport and her family owned the Hallsport General Store.

This was the cute part. While some details of life escaped John’s memory, he remembered meeting his wife like it was yesterday. He went square dancing and saw Eloise, but he had a different partner.

“The last set, they said, ‘Kiss her in the center if you dare.’ So I dared, and we kissed,” Spicer said proudly.

Eloise also remembered that first kiss.

“He wanted to give me a ride home that night,” she said. “And I said nooooooo.”

To counter her jab, John said, “But the most dangerous thing I did in my life was get married!”

When asked how they stayed together for 75 years, Eloise said building the house brought them closer together. John Spicer points to his kids and brags how Eloise raised the kids.

As you walk around their house on Crescent Drive and go in the basement, his famous workshop, it’s incredible to think Spicer mixed the cement and built the house by hand in 1949.

As we went to leave, John joked, “All you need for a little notoriety is to turn 100.”

No, I assured him. He earned it. And the community thanks the family for sharing him with us for 10 decades.


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