Community profile: The steel cowboy of Glenwood Springs Middle School
Some nights, a lone school bus sits idly at its post outside Glenwood Springs Middle School.
It isn’t awaiting students to pile on to go home or on a field trip. The steed of the man they call “Dead Horse,” patiently awaits its cowboy to complete his business inside to be returned to the stable.
Mitch Spencer is a humble, outgoing seventh-grade science teacher at the school. He also delivers students to and from their homes every morning and afternoon. He’ll talk your ear off about science, fire protection, outdoorsing or the city of Glenwood Springs, which he’s called home since 1963.
The offspring of legendary Glenwood Springs High School girl’s basketball coach Harlan Spencer, Mitch’s nickname comes from his affinity for conversation and his position as one of the old guards of the valley.
“There’s two stories to it,” Glenwood Springs Middle School Principal Joel Hathaway said. “One is that he’s always beating the dead horse. You can ask him one question and get three hours of answer. But I prefer to think it’s because he’s the last of the old cowboys, riding the yellow horse back and forth every day.
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“On the steel horse he rides. Like Bon Jovi.”
Mitch gets up at 5 a.m. every morning, earlier if he has tests to grade. If it’s a short day, he’s back 12 hours later. He teaches his students about dinosaurs in the classroom and brightens the beginning and ending of his passengers’ days with small talk on the bus.
Even before they have a class with Mr. Spencer, some kids know him as the funny, happy bus driver who has escorted them to and from school since kindergarten.
“He’s a really funny and nice person,” said Ariana Martinez Valenzuela, who first rode Spencer’s bus as a first grader and now is a student in his social studies class. “He would always try to learn everyone’s name.”
Spencer’s biography on the school’s website describes his achievements as an alumni of Glenwood Springs Elementary School in 1974 and the Sunlight fifth grade ski program, earning the “coveted title of advanced beginner.” It concludes, “My wife and I feel very fortunate to be a part of this community, and for myself being able to follow in my father’s footsteps as a teacher at GSMS working with the wonderful students and families of Glenwood.”
But the plan wasn’t always to follow Harlan’s lead — Mitch went straight into real estate out of high school, capitalizing on the oil shale boom. That career lasted less than a month.
“My standard joke is I bought my house two weeks before Exxon pulled out,” Spencer said.
Spencer said that he paid $66,000 for the property that was supposed to send him on his way to being a mogul. He added that townhomes in that area were going for $23,000 within a year.
He signed on as a volunteer firefighter, paying the bills by working at City Market, where he met his wife, Ann. He stayed on with the fire department for six years, which turned him onto fire science classes at Colorado Mountain College.
In his tenure, he worked “big fires,” like the Rocky Mountain Natural Gas Explosion of 1985. He lost friends in the Mid-Continent Resource’s Dutch Creek No. 1 blast in 1981.
As he aged, conversations with his father steered Mitch toward education. An unrelenting optimism for the work, despite the rigorous hours, piqued his interest.
“And he was right. It’s an adventure. It’s a challenge, but it’s also an incredible enjoyment,” Mitch said.
So, off he went to school, first CMC, then to Mesa State, today known as Colorado Mesa University.
He got his degree and started teaching at 37. Next year will be his 25th year. He also took up the family tradition of coaching, leading Glenwood Middle School’s football team for about 15 years, culminating in a second-place finish at state.
In the classroom, and out, he integrated his outdoor lifestyle and experiences. In non-COVID times, he takes his class on camping trips to Dinosaur National Monument and field trips to the memorial of the Vulcan Mine in New Castle where Mike Patch, son of Ron Patch, who perished in the Dutch Creek disaster, tells about getting the call that his father wouldn’t be coming home days after the disaster.
Naturally, on all these excursions, Spencer is behind the wheel of the bus getting them there.
He didn’t take up driving until about 10 years ago, following conversations with his sister, Joycelyn, a fellow teacher as well as bus driver.
Mitch gave up coaching and needed to fill his time. He became immediately entranced with the new, different kinds of relationships he could develop with the kids than those in the classroom.
“On Monday morning when they get on the bus, you’re not trying to get them to do a math problem or something,” Spencer said. “It’s just such a special relationship. You just get to know every kid. You can tell if they’re happy or sad. It’s just a very special thing to be involved with.”
Reporter Rich Allen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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Students in the woods/construction classes at Basalt High School are getting hands-on experience by building a tiny home.