FRAMINGHAM – Yvonne Spicer’s father knew he was going to die. Willy Spicer was an old-fashioned, part-Cherokee South Carolinian who drove trucks for a living and stood when a woman entered the room. He was also a diabetic.
“I remember having a conversation with him,” Spicer said. “He told me, ‘Daddy’s going to heaven pretty soon.’ He said, ‘It’ll be OK, just get an education.’”
Spicer’s father died when she was 10, but those words stayed with her. The daughter of two parents without high school diplomas went on to obtain a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree and an Ed.D. Next month, she hopes to earn another distinction: becoming the first person elected mayor of Framingham.
“You don’t get to know me unless you know my journey,” Spicer said. “That’s why it’s very comfortable for me to understand and to be around people who are struggling. Because I know what it’s like to struggle.”
“And I know it’s not always about a program, it’s about really giving someone a true opportunity.”
Spicer, 55, is the vice president of advocacy and educational partnerships at the Museum of Science, Boston. Her first job was running errands at age 13 for the owners of a soul food joint on the corner of Franklin and Lexington avenues in Brooklyn.
Spicer would peel potatoes and stock the shelves, earning $5 or $10 under the table every so often. By the time she entered Brooklyn Technical High School, where she studied architecture, Spicer had her first paperwork-official job – at McDonalds.
“I don’t even know what they paid me but I know it was the flagship McDonalds in downtown Brooklyn,” Spicer said. “Early on in life I learned the value of hard work and not to shy away from it.”
Spicer grew up in Brooklyn with two older brothers and a younger sister. After her father died at age 52, she said, her mother “went into overdrive.”
Dorothy Spicer loved school, but she had to quit to start working at a young age. After moving north from her native Florida, Dorothy worked in a factory and, later, cleaned houses. Spicer sometimes accompanied her mother on housekeeping trips to a 21st-floor penthouse on the Upper East Side.
“I used to say to my mother, ‘How do you get to live in a place like this?’ She said, ‘Baby, get an education. Get a good job one day,’” Spicer said.
At dinner, Spicer’s family would often host two or three kids from the neighborhood whose parents couldn’t take care of them. It was the type of neighborhood where people did things like that.
“My parents didn’t have a whole lot of financial wealth but they had a lot of love,” Spicer said.
Spicer’s mother celebrated her 71st birthday in a New York City hospital on Sept. 10, 2001. The next day, 3,000 people were killed in the terrorist attacks. The next week, Dorothy died.
“When she died, there were so many kids who came to her funeral, I had no idea all that she had done,” Spicer said. “She taught me to give, she taught us all to be givers.”
Spicer had the chance to attend Cornell University. She couldn’t afford it. Instead, she studied at the State University of New York at Oswego on a full scholarship, earning her bachelor’s degree in industrial arts and technology, and her master’s degree in technology education.
In 1985, Spicer accepted her first teaching job, as a woodworking instructor at Farley and Walsh middle schools. She made $18,000 and lived in a basement apartment on Framingham’s Southside. Within a decade, she became the first female chairwoman of the technical education department.
In addition to her teaching job, Spicer worked as a part-time real estate agent for several years. She quit that gig in 1995, when she began pursing her doctorate in educational leadership at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.
Spicer later worked as the coordinator of technology and engineering for the state Department of Education and as director of career and technical education for the Newton Public Schools.
In part, Spicer decided to teach in Framingham, and later Newton, because she wanted the students to have a role model who was a woman of color – particularly in fields of science and technology. The students in those districts seemed to need it more than those in, say, Boston or Brockton, she said.
“I made the decision to spend time in these school districts and I see the impact,” Spicer said. “Where my students can say, you know what this woman is marvelous and it’s not about race, it’s not about gender, it is about this person is a wonderful individual.”
In 2006, Spicer was hired at the Museum of Science, Boston, to expand the National Center for Technological Literacy. She has since worked with more than 100 school districts in Massachusetts and other states to enhance STEM coursework.
Spicer has lived on North Lane for more than two decades. She has no children, but one niece calls her “aunty mommy.” The relative came to live with her in Framingham starting at age 13.
Spicer never thought she’d run for office. She ran a spontaneous, election-day write-in campaign in 2016 to earn a spot at Town Meeting. In April, she voted against Framingham becoming a city.
But that’s the story of her life, Spicer said. She never sets limits. “If you say, ‘What’s next for you, Dr. Spicer?’ I would say, ‘I don’t know, I’m open and receptive.’”
For now, of course, there is one specific next step she hopes becomes a reality on Nov. 7.
“Being mayor of Framingham, I’m looking forward to that opportunity. I’m looking forward to doing my very best,” Spicer said. “But I see it as a chance to set the bar for this community for years to come and to do it well, in a way that Framingham can be proud.”
“I don’t take any of it for granted.”
Yvonne Spicer at a glance
Office sought: Mayor
Political Party: Democrat
Residence: North Lane
Education: Bachelor’s degree in industrial arts and technology; master’s degree in technology education; doctorate in educational leadership
Employment: Vice president for advocacy and educational partnerships at the Museum of Science in Boston
Political experience: Framingham Town Meeting Member and vice chairwoman for Precinct 6; member of the Ways and Means Committee
Other community service: Past Member of the Human Relations Commission; Member of the Massachusetts Business Roundtable; appointed to the Massachusetts Governor’s STEM Advisory Council by Govs. Patrick and Baker; served as an adviser to the National Governors Association
Facebook page: @yvonnespicerformayor