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Pops & Chops: A Legacy of Kindness

At age 67, Richard Wood became a member of Lambda Chi Alpha. 

Enjoying lunch in San Diego on the day of his initiation, familiar faces began to enter the restaurant to surprise and congratulate Wood. Surrounding him were the friends and Brothers of the Phi-Sigma Zeta chapter of his late son, Spencer, who died from an accidental fall at Avila Beach, CA in 2006. 

These men grew close to Rich over the past fifteen years since the loss of his son during his senior year at Califorina Polytechnic-San Luis Obispo (Cal Poly). They were overjoyed to welcome Rich into their Lambda Chi family, though. In many ways, they had been family all along.

The story of Richard & Spencer Wood is as much a story of tragedy as it is a legacy of kindness and the reverberations of good will. Grief may be love with nowhere to go, but it can also find purpose through its own legacy, as is the case of Spencer Wood. 

“Spencer Wood is a lifestyle,” said Luke Montelon, High Alpha at the time of Spencer’s passing. 

Spencer studied history and wrote poetry, often thinking deeply about the world he would later leave too soon. His Brothers would routinely find him asleep with an open book on his chest. 

Despite his youth, Spencer cultivated his passion, talents, and intellect in an artful way, bringing

 kindness wherever he went. More than anything else, his poetry reflected that: 

Leave behind all but your mind… 

Discover the world by learning

Understand what it is you’re yearning.

Respect all those whom you oppose.

Always continue this incredible journey. 

During his senior year, Spencer enrolled in a Women in History course, the lone man amidst fifteen women. Within minutes, the professor lost control of the class, unable to contain even her own laughter in the face of his wit, a tidbit she later admitted during a memorial service on the Cal Poly campus. It only further complicated matters that Spencer aced each assignment and test. 

Though Spencer was no stranger to the spotlight— in fact, he felt quite comfortable there—his true gift was how he made others feel. In private, Spencer was the man he was in public. 

That same year, Spencer worked as a paralegal at a San Luis Obispo law firm. The managing partner’s wife, Sasha, described Spencer as Clark Kent: strong, intelligent, compassionate, disarming, earnest, and above all, kind. He met work with an appetite for learning equal to that for fun. For a time, Spencer was even in a band, Cover Charge. Ever the thinker, Spencer was naturally the lyricist. 

Spencer served as the High Beta of his chapter at the time of his passing. He understood that leadership was a verb, rather than a noun. To be a leader is to accept responsibility for mistakes and give credit for success. He led from the back of the room, but you would have been blind to miss him.

When a soul is lost too early, it affects us even more. Spencer was beloved to all those who knew him, which was a long list, indeed. 

For geographic reasons, five celebrations were held to honor the life of Spencer Wood. One was held in Newport Beach, California, at the seaside Catholic parish, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, where Spencer had been an altar boy. Following the service, many of Spencer’s childhood friends connected with a group of Lambda Chis in the church parking lot. After exchanging stories, they hatched a plan. 

A reception followed the funeral mass, and Rich was hardly surprised when more than fifty men arrived soaking wet, having jumped off the bridge leading onto Lido Island where the Wood family lived. For those who are familiar with the infamous bridge, such a thing can earn the attention of the local police, which it did on that day. 

When asked what they were doing there, the men shared that they were honoring a lost friend: Spencer Wood. Rich was only slightly less than surprised to learn that the police on duty knew Spencer well. So, what of their response? 

“We’re shutting down boat traffic under the bridge, and car traffic on the road. You have fifteen minutes.” 

The loss of a Brother and son was crushing for the chapter and his family, and his absence was felt in every nook and cranny. Spencer was a lifeforce and a source of inspiration and positivity for those he met in his too-short life.

In the wake of his passing, the Spencer Wood Memorial Scholarship—aka Lifestyle Scholarship— was created to honor his legacy. Spencer often saw in others what they did not see in themselves. With Rich’s help, the men of Phi-Sigma Zeta believed they could encourage deserving men to do the same. 

Like Spencer himself, this scholarship is untraditional. Unlike other needs- or merit-based awards, the Spencer Wood Memorial Scholarship celebrates a lifestyle. Staying true to this, Brothers cannot apply for the award—they must be nominated. 

“To be awarded the scholarship is the highest recognition a Brother can receive,” said Shane Saltzgiver, a dear friend of both Spencer and Rich. “It has truly taken on a life of its own, while still honoring his memory.” 

Nearly every year since his passing, a memorial concert is held in San Luis Obispo. In Shane’s words, “[the concert] was established to unite family, friends, and the Lambda Chi active and alumni brothers, bringing deeper and personalized meaning to the scholarship.” 

Today, undergraduates know Spencer in story alone. Yet, recipients continue to enhance the meaning of the award, adding a piece of themselves with each passing year and growing into their full potential, as Spencer would have encouraged. This is certainly true for Jake Javier, the most recent recipient of the Spencer Wood Memorial Scholarship. 

Before Cal Poly, Javier attended San Ramon Valley High School, where he was football team captain and graduated Summa Cum Laude. Tragically, the day before he would have received his diploma, Javier was paralyzed in a diving accident. This not only prevented him from walking across the stage but also delayed his enrollment and forced him to resign a football scholarship.

Fortunately for Javier and Lambda Chi, he found new Brotherhood in San Luis Obispo.

A semester into his biomedical engineering degree, a friend invited Javier to visit the Lambda Chi house. Eager to do something other than study, Javier was happy to join. But there was one problem: he couldn’t make it up the front steps in his wheelchair.

“Within hours, they built a make-shift ramp so I could participate,” said Javier. “They immediately made me feel at home.

“I couldn’t say no to a bid after that!”

The following summer, alumni of Phi-Sigma fully funded renovations to their home so Javier could move in by fall.

Like Spencer, the men of Lambda Chi naturally gravitated towards Javier and he towards them. Humble, intelligent, and soft-spoken, Javier was grateful to give back to his new family. During his tenure, he served as House Manager, Academic Chair, and Executive Committee Member-at-Large. Hardly a year into membership, Javier was chosen to receive the Spencer Wood Memorial Award.

“I was humbled,” said Javier, remembering the

honor. “We learned the prestige of the award early

on as Associate Members, and it was not something

I ever thought I would receive.”

Over the past fifteen years, Rich Wood has met and congratulated each recipient, including Javier. 

“They all remind me of Spencer in their own way,” said Rich. “It is simply remarkable that his memory could live on so strongly and for so long within these men.” 

Every spring that he’s able, Rich returns to San Luis Obispo for the chapter’s annual “Pops & Chops” event. Reserved for Brothers and their fathers, he finds joy watching as their bond deepens over the weekend. The special weekend reminds Rich of the relationship he had with his son, and the relationship other dads can have with theirs, too. 

More specifically, Rich remembers Spencer’s last words to him, which were the same words he used to close every conversation they had. Because, in truth, they were Brothers long before Rich’s initiation: 

I LOVE YOU, BUDDY

I LOVE YOU TOO, POPS.

A few years ago, Rich composed a poem titled “I Have A Friend In Heaven.” The beauty of a legacy of kindness is that the more you share it with others, the more you receive. It is the core and essence of being a Lambda Chi Alpha Brother and is embodied every day through our bond with each other, as Spencer and Rich have so graciously taught.

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