His influence went well beyond his role as Honeywell CEO to the realms of education, culture and international relations.
Edson White Spencer, who served as chairman and CEO of Honeywell Inc. from 1973 to 1987 and was deeply influential in higher-education and civic circles, died Sunday at his Wayzata home. He was 85.
"This was an individual who operated at the very highest levels and successfully led a variety of people," said Charles Denny Jr., who worked at Honeywell before becoming chairman and CEO of ADC Telecommunications.
Spencer, who was born in Chicago, went to private schools and served in the Navy in 1945-46. He earned his bachelor's degree from Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., in 1948, then spent two years as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University in England. In 1950, he married Harriet Stuart; they had four children.
He worked for Sears Roebuck before moving to Minneapolis to join Honeywell as an aeronautical engineer in 1954. He went on to serve in a number of roles, including regional manager in Tokyo, before becoming chairman and CEO in 1973. He retired in 1988.
Spencer "represented the best of the old-world leadership style that came out of a well-educated background, with broad cultural and philanthropic interests that were international in scope," Denny said. "And there was never any question about his ethical grounding; he was not the sort of business leader to demonstrate the behaviors we've read about recently on Wall Street."
In the 1980s, Spencer often defended Honeywell's military contracts when they came under fire, once telling shareholders that Japanese and German aggression during World War II were what happened when countries could not defend themselves.
Spencer's influence went beyond Honeywell. He helped found the Minnesota Business Partnership and National Business Roundtable and served as a trustee of the Ford, Mayo and Minneapolis foundations. He was a member of the Trilateral Commission and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He advised Govs. Rudy Perpich and Arne Carlson.
"I can't think of anything he couldn't do," Carlson said. "He excelled in everything, always with the widest sense of community. And he treated people with such humility and graciousness, from waitresses and janitors to presidents of international companies."
Steve Lewis, former president of Carleton College in Northfield, on whose board Spencer served, shared a friend's observation that "if Ed Spencer was at the head of a table, he never spoke too soon, or everyone else would clam up. He liked to listen, and that was part of what made him the smartest guy in the room."
Spencer's "encyclopedic knowledge and intense curiosity" endured to the end, Lewis said. When he visited Spencer last fall, a degenerative illness had robbed his friend of speech and left him with little mobility except for in his right hand. "After I talked a while, he picked up his chalkboard and wrote, 'Obama?'" Lewis said. "Later, he wrote, 'Iran?' His mind was as lively as ever."
Spencer is survived by his wife, Harriet; a daughter, Linda Murchison of Wilmington, N.C.; three sons, Edson Jr. of Wayzata, Douglas of Denver and James of Portland Ore.; and nine grandchildren. Services will be at 3 p.m. April 3 in Wayzata Community Church, 125 Wayzata Blvd. E.
Pamela Miller • 612-673-4290