Tales From The Crypt
It was a cold, gray morning. A Sunday--they never have funerals on Sunday.
The Reverend Gregory Spencer, Fort Worth's renowned preacher, undertaker, and entrepreneur, opened the back door of his Eastwood mortuary, which doubles as his home.
And as he looked outside, he found himself staring straight into the barrel of a gun.
"Hey, Spencer," the man behind the handgun said. "If you scream, I'll kill you right now."
Spencer got a glimpse of a black face--he didn't know who it was--before his attacker grabbed him and spun him around roughly. He shoved Spencer into his tiny living quarters inside the mortuary, and ordered him to lie on the fold-out couch he uses as a bed.
As Spencer crawled onto the bed, the gunman muttered, "You are going to learn not to fuck with people."
Then the undertaker heard a second male voice: "Go ahead and kill him."
While his face was pressed against the couch, Spencer felt the men tie his hands behind his back, bind his legs--and push a pillow against the back of his head.
Then he heard a series of gunshots.
And after the blasts, finally, a man's voice again: "Case closed."
Then he was alone.
When two of Spencer's employees found him around 8:45 a.m. on January 29, 1995, the undertaker was lying in his room, his feet tied with one of his own silk neckties, and his wrists bound with the cord of a glue gun.
He was hollering at the top of his lungs, even though someone had tied a blue shirt around his face.
"I've been shot!" Spencer bellowed through the shirt. "I've been shot!"
The Fort Worth police officers who responded to the employees' 911 call did, in fact, find a pillow riddled with bullet holes and a couple of spent casings lying about the room, but surprisingly--no, miraculously--no wounds on Spencer.
When they approached the 38-year-old undertaker, Spencer was unable to talk, his body quaking with horror.
"It was the most terrifying moment of my life," Spencer would later recall. "I thought I was as good as dead."
As he gained his composure, Spencer told police that he'd just called his two employees to meet him at the funeral home for morning chores. He'd opened the back door to put some things in his car when he was attacked.
Officers duly noted all the crime scene details on the police report, as well as an observation: that one of the employees who called police "did not appear to be distraught over this situation."
Later, a visibly shaken Spencer would stand before his congregation at the Church of Philadelphia in Fort Worth and comment on the harrowing incident. A miracle had occurred, he said. God had spared his life.
And it wasn't the first time he believed somebody had tried to kill him. On December 15, 1994, Spencer complained to police that someone had fired a shot through a window into the same back room where he'd been bound and gagged in January.
Someone, evidently, wanted him dead.
"Let the Lord handle it," he told his flock that day, and still advises them. "It's in the Lord's hands."
Spencer's strange encounter with death has been the hottest subject of gossip among church folk since the preacher began speaking about it publicly early this year. That's because there is perhaps no better-known man in Fort Worth's immense black churchgoing community than the Rev. Gregory Spencer. He'll tell you that himself; no one has ever called him humble.
"If me and Emmitt Smith were in the same grocery store," he says, "the little kids would recognize me before they would recognize him."
And they probably would, because Spencer is Fort Worth's most successful undertaker, a position that in the black community has always carried with it an ample measure of prominence and prestige.
And as prominence goes, Spencer has got more than most. His funeral home is easily the grandest and busiest among Fort Worth's black communities. The large, red-brick mortuary on Miller Avenue is filled with antiques and exquisite reproductions, and flanked by a fleet of pristine, white stretch limousines.
In 1994 alone, Spencer performed 550 funerals--way beyond his closest competitors.
He is also one of the city's most charismatic preachers, with a reputation that extends outside of Fort Worth and even Texas. His non-denominational Church of Philadelphia is growing rapidly; its congregation is dynamic, young, and stylish. Some 400 people attend the church on a typical Sunday, and new converts are added every week.
He's also an extremely successful businessman who, in 1980, at the age of 23, founded his own funeral home. Today he performs about half of all the black funerals in Fort Worth, leaving the other, older African-American funeral homes scrambling for the remnants of the body business.
And he knows his market intimately, having grown up in the old, black, working-class Como neighborhood of Fort Worth. Como people speak with admiration and affection about Spencer, who's known to cut a good deal on a funeral for his old neighborhood friends--or extend credit to those who have none.
Widows love Gregory Spencer. So do the widowers. Even gangsters admire and respect him. He participates in and organizes numerous community events--he could be his own booster club. He's not shy about publicity, and he's livin' large these days, albeit in his own, peculiar way.
Gregory Spencer built a funeral-service empire in Fort Worth through innovation, a sensitive appreciation for the "special touch"--and relentless ambition. His signature funerals include such novel props as Afghan rugs, white doves, and custom-designed coffins.
Despite his reputation as a flamboyant funeral director, Spencer is, in fact, an intensely private person. This is a man of contradictions: one who drives a gold-trimmed Cadillac and wears expensive silk ties and gold bracelets, yet sleeps on a fold-out couch in a tiny room in the back of his mortuary. One who is somewhat fussy in manner, yet has managed to gain the respect of Fort Worth's hyper-macho black gang members.
This is a man who's dearly loved in Como, but has developed a host of detractors--chiefly among ministers and morticians.
Indeed, there is no love lost between Spencer and the other, longer-established funeral home directors, who describe him as a maverick and a backstabber. He is also embroiled in an ugly battle with his former bookkeeper and insurance agent; Spencer has complained to Fort Worth police and the Texas Department of Insurance that insurance agent William Cook and bookkeeper Jimmie Hudson took out an insurance policy on his life without his permission.
He has stopped short of accusing them of plotting to kill him, but just barely: "The only way they were going to collect," Spencer says, "is I would have to be dead, and I am perfectly healthy. Why would you insure someone who is perfectly healthy and you are older than him and you have no insurable interest?"
Yet Fort Worth police detective J.H. Ladd says his department has ruled out Hudson or Cook as suspects in the January attempt on Spencer's life--and question whether the incident happened at all.
These days, Ladd says, Spencer shows little interest in pursuing the investigation of that bizarre assault. "I think the last time [Spencer] spoke to the officer, he said, 'Let the Lord handle it,'" Ladd says.
Spencer, however, says he can't understand the police department's seeming lack of concern for his safety--and says he's hurt by talk that the incident might have been a hoax.
"I was here, I was in it," Spencer says. "I know what happened that day. I'm the one who still don't sleep good at night."
Spencer adds that he called detectives every day during the first month after the attack, but that friends in the ministry took him aside and said, "You need to leave it alone, because it looks like you're trying to build a fire."
Today, the mysteries still surrounding the January incident puzzle and dismay the undertaker's family and congregation. Spencer finds himself the subject of whispered words in church foyers, at funerals, at businesses, and neighborhood socials.
There's the usual gossip about this odd and extremely successful young man.
But there's also much speculation about his brushes with death. Friends say some of his enemies are so jealous of Spencer's success that they want him dead, and his enemies say he staged the attacks to make a martyr of himself and get the attention he craves.
They all want to know--is someone trying to kill the Rev. Gregory Spencer?
"Who turned down the heat?" Spencer asks loudly as he paces through the elegantly appointed hallways of the Gregory Spencer Funeral Home one spring day. "What did I tell you about turning down the heat?"
His employees smile and shrug. "It's hot in here," says a female apprentice.
"Y'all women are trying to freeze me out of here," Spencer says.
He makes his way to the thermostat and turns it back up. The women grumble, but Spencer ignores them. He is, after all, chief executive officer of Gregory Spencer Funeral Directors, Inc.; he gets the last word. Still, he responds in good humor when he comes back from a burial an hour later and finds the heater turned back down.
But Spencer is known for running a tight ship. He has to. His funeral home performs four or five funerals on a busy day. Last year, competing with 10 other black funeral homes in Fort Worth, he reaped 60 percent of the business. He built his building with volume in mind.
On any given day, the dead lie in caskets in six private viewing rooms decorated in hues of burgundy, gray, and pink. The bodies are well-presented and meticulously made up, often with mementos of life positioned in the hands: reading glasses, Bibles, baseballs.
If the family of a dead man can't afford a tie, Spencer will dress the corpse in one of his own. He locks his silk ties and cufflinks in a file cabinet, because his apprentices have buried some of his favorites without his permission. "I can't tell you how many of my ties I've buried," he says, chuckling.
Spencer enters his little room and stops dead in his tracks. "What are you doing here?" he growls. The object of his annoyance turns out to be his 20-year-old nephew, who quickly jumps up from the table.
"I was looking..." the young man begins, nervously waving a want-ad section at his glowering uncle.
"What did I tell you about being here after 8 o'clock? Why aren't you on the bus?" Spencer demands.
"I was trying to find places that are on the bus line..."
"I done told you, Michael, I didn't want to find you here after 8. Now, If I find you here again, you are going to be out on the street. Do you hear me?"
The nephew bounds past Spencer and heads for the bus stop. He doesn't look back.
Spencer shakes his head. "He's going to find a job," he mumbles to himself. "Or he's going to be homeless." The young man's father is in state prison on a drug charge. Spencer frets constantly over his nephew, worried that without a strong father figure, he will lose his way.
"The boy just doesn't want to work," Spencer laments.
Yet the undertaker is known for hiring hard-luck kids--some of whom he's pulled off the streets and given a chance to earn an honest living.
A week later, in fact, the nephew has found a job working at a discount store. Spencer delights in telling the tale to his church members--adding on a homily about hard work and tough love.
Spencer himself is happiest when he is working. A wiry, dapper fellow, he sleeps four or five hours a night, awakens early, and runs all day. He personally presides over most of his funerals, even though he employs several funeral directors.
Between services, he works the phone like a demon, managing church affairs, networking in the community, and running the mortuary business. He eats when he remembers to, one meal a day, whatever he can get his hands on and consume quickly.
Sometimes, the place seems more like a community center than a funeral home, with visitors traipsing in and out of his office to socialize, or talk about life. Even grieving family members will stop by to share a laugh and catch him up on the neighborhood gossip.
He particularly enjoys chatting with the widows. And the older a person gets, the more frequently he sees them, because he's burying their friends.
"It's the widow," he proclaims one day as an attractive, casually dressed older woman enters the office. The woman, Yvonne Sheppard, moves to hug Spencer.
"I've been a widow a long time. I'm tired of coming up here," she tells him. "When I go, I want y'all to bury me in my backyard."
"We're not doing that," he says, returning her hug. "When we get finished with you, honey, you'll look like Queen Elizabeth."
The widow titters, then looks him up and down in appraisal. "Well, you look pretty," she tells him.
"Don't I?" he agrees.
Behind the folksy demeanor is a man whose employees and friends call driven and demanding. To Spencer, mistakes mean the loss of valuable time. He schedules funerals within minutes of each other, coordinating his routes and funeral fleet as though he were planning movements of armies. Spencer hates wasting time.
"He's the kind of man who wants things the way Gregory Spencer wants things," says a friend, Curtis Savannah. "And if it isn't like that, you have a very upset Gregory Spencer on your hands."
One Friday, with the funeral home booked solid with wakes and services, Spencer was scurrying about, performing last-minute preparations for a men's summit of black professionals from all over the country as well as planning his Sunday sermon, when he got an urgent call an hour before the summit was to begin.
"Who are they?" Spencer asked.
"Kin," came the reply. "They live in the projects."
Spencer glanced at his watch. He'd just about been ready to leave for the summit when a woman in tears showed up requesting a meeting with him. She was waiting for him in the back room.
Spencer was more than pressed for time. But the woman on the phone was persuasive. Ida and Eddie had been together for years, she told him. They were the parents of six children, and had finally decided to make it legal. They'd already obtained a marriage license, but didn't have enough money to hire a preacher.
Someone told them to call Gregory Spencer.
Spencer agreed to marry them. First, he met briefly with the teary-eyed woman, whom he described as having a "problem." Then he headed out to the Caville Place housing project not far from the funeral home.
When he arrived, he found Ida and Eddie's children playing in the dirt front yard with other kids from the projects. Eddie, a tall, skinny man in a white shirt and dark tie, greeted him nervously when he stepped inside their home. The children followed behind and crowded inside the small, dark apartment; a few neighbors also attended, smiling at the bashful couple as they stood in front of the television console.
Eddie, who rarely lifted his doleful eyes, nonetheless managed a heartfelt "I do" to the preacher's question. Ida, plump, wearing a light blue dress, was likewise too shy to look at Spencer. Still, she managed to overcome her aversion to the phrase "promise to obey" at the critical moment, and the couple exchanged slim gold bands.
Spencer wed them in a sweet, 10-minute ceremony in which Ida proclaimed she was madly in love with Eddie. The children giggled with delight.
After the ceremony, Mr. and Mrs. Eddie Reece asked Spencer how much they owed him.
"You don't owe me anything," he replied.
Even so, Eddie passed him a neatly folded $10 bill.
On the way back to the funeral home, motorists recognized Spencer's gold-trimmed Cadillac, and honked and shouted greetings. Spencer responded with smiles, nods, and waves. "The Lord called me to minister to the people," he offered enthusiastically. "These other Negroes, they're waiting around to bury folk. I live with these folks. My business really is with the living."
The other "Negroes" he's talking about, of course, are Fort Worth's other black funeral home directors--who seldom have a kind word to say about Gregory Spencer.
"Let me put it this way," says Lee Pinkston III, whose family owns Pinkston's Mortuary, with branches in Dallas and Fort Worth. "If you go in there with no money, he'll bury you for free. If you go in there with a $10,000 policy, you won't leave with a penny in your pocket.
"You would think he has a direct line to God," he adds. "But it's all an act."
Spencer is well aware of his detractors, and the ugly things they say.
They say he undercuts prices to steal business. "I have $4,000 funerals going on right now," Spencer responds.y"I don't have to cut my prices."
They say he's a bad employer.
"Who do they come to asking for a job when their families fire them?" Spencer asks.
They say he's gay.
"Are they sleeping with me?" Spencer retorts.
It has to be a humbling thing--to remember little Gregory Spencer running around the neighborhood in his high-water pants, telling everyone he wanted to be an undertaker.
And there he is, some 20-odd years later. Running the biggest black funeral home in North Texas. The upstart has become the kingpin.
Most all of Fort Worth's funeral home directors, indeed, have known Spencer since he was a boy.
As a young lad--according to his Aunt Hazel--Gregory Spencer played funeral like other kids played house. While the neighborhood children tossed balls in the street, Gregory stood alone in his grandmother's backyard, presiding over a makeshift altar. He buried cats, dogs, birds, raccoons. If an animal died in Como, young Gregory Spencer would bury it.
"He always played church," says Hazel Ware. "He was always preaching, and he decided when he was very young that he wanted to be a preacher and an undertaker. So he would always preach and have funerals in the backyard. The pastor would say, 'Y'all take care of this one. He's special.'"
Spencer, his brother, and two sisters grew up in his grandmother's house. His mother and father, until they divorced, lived in back in a small rental home.
His grandmother, Pauline Minor, was a churchgoing woman who raised her grandchildren with the help of her daughter Hazel after her husband, George Minor, died of cancer in 1965. She raised them strictly, and believed in the value of a good whuppin' every now and then.
"We appreciated her," Spencer says today. "We knew she loved us."
She didn't allow any backtalk, and her grandchildren did not run the streets. Neighborhood children were allowed to visit the Minor home, but the Spencer children were required to remain in the yard.
"Our house was the house," Spencer recalls. "We had one of the biggest backyards and a basketball goal. We had lots of room to play baseball, and Grandmama always made sandwiches and Kool-Aid."
Little Gregory seldom posed a problem for his grandmother and aunt. He recalls getting his last whipping when he was about nine. He says he never joined a gang, and wasn't interested in making mischief. He did enjoy playing "banker" with the other children, but his opponents would often leave the game early because Gregory had a knack for cutting up more fake money in a shorter amount of time than the other kids.
"I'd tell them, 'Y'all have scissors and the same amount of paper as I do. No sense sitting there complaining.'"
While the typical neighborhood kid whined about having to go to church, Gregory looked forward to it. He would sit up front and participate enthusiastically; the preachers loved him. Even then, Spencer will tell you, he felt he had a relationship with God.
"I knew I was a Christian," he says.
When he was finally old enough to join the youth choir at Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Como, the small, plain-looking boy sang his heart out, and was soon called to lead the choir with his clear tenor voice.
His outspoken desire to become a funeral director endeared him to the church elders. Spencer especially admired the Reverend G.W. Burton, who died in 1966. Every Sunday morning, Gregory would go sit in Burton's study while the old preacher prepared for service. "He was just a nice old preacher," Spencer recalls. "He paid us attention."
When he was young, Gregory Spencer suffered from a host of ailments, including hepatitis and impetigo. Though frail, he was also very bright. He graduated early from Green B. Trimble Technical High School in Fort Worth after years of enduring the taunts of classmates and peers.
Marilyn Sheppard, now a member of Spencer's Church of Philadelphia, remembers young Gregory as a runty, bespectacled kid who used to carry a briefcase to school. "They called him 'Specs' because of the glasses he wore," she recalls. "They used to [tease] him about his high pants. He was kind of a nerd.
"I remember telling some friends, 'Y'all are laughing, but that's one smart nigger over there.' Then one day, the kids were teasing him and he turned around and said, 'Y'all can say what you want to say, but I'm going to be rich some day.' He always knew what he wanted."
Spencer began hanging around neighborhood funeral homes when he was about nine. The day he turned 13, he marched over to the old Baker Funeral Home on Rosedale Street in South Fort Worth and applied for a job. The Baker family hired him as an attendant, and he worked for the mortuary for eight years.
In the beginning, his job consisted of tending the body at the bereaved family's home until someone with a driver's license could get a hearse to pick it up. He would visit with the families while he waited, and it was in those homes that Spencer says he first got an idea what people were looking for when they buried their loved ones.
"I didn't think of it as a little old job I had to do because I couldn't drive," he says. "I saw it as five good years of meeting people. I now serve 80 percent of the people they [the Bakers] used to serve."
Spencer's idols at the time were funeral directors at Brown and Hardee, now Hardee Adams, which was renowned in Fort Worth's black communities for its showmanship and flashy services.
"They dressed in tuxedos, were older, and had a lot of finesse and a lot of style," he says.
The Bakers, however, frowned on such displays. From them, Spencer learned the nuts and bolts of business.
"The Bakers were very strict, stiff professional people," he recalls. "Superb business people. That's what I admired about working there. But I was unable to be showmanly expressive while I was there. I wanted to. I wanted to turn a funeral service around--so that a family would say, 'Wow--I'm glad I used them.'"
"It dates back to your ancestry," he says. "The funeral service in the lives of our ancestors was a highly regarded experience. The slavemasters let the slaves off [from work], slaves were able to dress up. It was a crowning day for eulogies--people saying nice things about you."
At 17, Spencer entered the Dallas Institute of Mortuary Science, and two years later, after passing the state exam, became the youngest licensed funeral director in Texas. Soon, he graduated from waiting on corpses to working on them.
Just seven years later, in 1980, Spencer would approach the patriarch of Baker's, Herbert Baker, and ask about acquiring stock in the company.
Baker talked it over with family members and refused the request, saying his relatives wanted to keep the funeral home strictly within the family.
That evening, Spencer's friend Walter Wilson offered a bit of advice: "You should go into business for yourself."
And that very next day, Spencer rented an old motel on Curzon Road in Como and slowly began transforming it into a funeral home using the money he made at Baker's and the small check he made from preaching at Gethsemane Baptist Church.
The mortuary opened on October 1, 1980. He called it "Loving Care."
Ten days later, he got his first body.
"I remember it was a family that didn't have a lot, and it was our first funeral," Spencer says. Money or no, the youthful undertaker began doing the kind of funerals he'd always dreamed about--full of pomp and circumstance.
And if there's one thing the Rev. Gregory Spencer hates, it's a sad funeral.
"He hates sad singing," adds his Aunt Hazel. "He tells family members that if people had a good life, there is no reason they can't get a good send-off."
In the early years, Spencer created the "Spencer March," a militaristic, slow-motion cadence in which pallbearers goosestep to the altar. Spencer himself will lead the family to their seats, highstepping, arms swinging dramatically. The pallbearers sometimes carry the casket on their shoulders.
The Spencer March gets mixed reviews.
"Some families don't like it, and some families throw a fit if we don't do it," he says. "It just depends on the funeral."
Spencer would branch out into all areas of the funeral business, selling custom caskets and designing floral arrangements. He picked up the latter skill at Gordon Boswell's, a prominent Fort Worth florist. He'd go there and watch the florist select flowers and create intricate bouquets. Then he'd go back and reconstruct the arrangement for one of his grieving families.
A lyricist, he'd sing his own songs at the funeral services, belting out the words in his plaintive tenor. A poet, he'd sometimes recite inspirational poems for the survivors.
He is a prolific poet, in fact, having written dozens of compositions over the years. His favorite is "When I've Lived Life to the Fullest," which he wrote in 1985.
"When I've helped a passing pilgrim and touched the lives of little children," it reads, "when I've lived life to the fullest, let me then sleep in the peace of death."
And these days, when he accompanies a family to the gravesite in chilly weather, he'll don a full-length raccoon coat so the cold won't chase him away from his job.
"He's a showman," says Thomas Russell, owner of Russell's Funeral Home in Como. "And he's a good talker. He can talk a wolf up to the circus crowd."
"If you go to one of his funerals," says Pinkston, one of Spencer's most vocal critics, "you would think he was burying Jesus Christ."
Finally, Gregory Spencer had settled into his very own funeral home. As the business solidified, he began to aggressively seek a greater share of the market. In 1984, when his lease expired at the old motel, he relocated to a tiny storefront on Miller Avenue, which now houses a discount clothing shop.
A setback came in 1986, when the storefront caught fire, destroying a body that Spencer was embalming for a service. The fire devastated the Miller Avenue space, but Spencer's families stood by him. In the meantime, he worked out of other funeral homes.
One day, he says he was standing outside the storefront when he noticed a sizable tract of land two lots away on Miller. He eventually bought the land, took out a loan, and built the Gregory Spencer Funeral Home, a huge brick structure with French decor.
But his first few years in business were rocky. His aggressive tactics angered the other funeral-home directors, who started losing their shares of the market.
"He's dirty," says Bobby Jones, a funeral director for Russell's Funeral Home. "He underbids everybody."
Spencer would offer cut-rate funerals to needy families and sometimes even performed them for free. While a no-frills service at a black funeral home, including a burial plot, can run as low as $1,000, Spencer, in the early days, would sometimes offer funeral packages for half that price--even throwing in complimentary extras such as escort service and flowers.
The older funeral directors, who'd historically carved their market shares through church and family ties, took offense at the free-market approach.
"It wasn't what he did, it was how he did it," Pinkston says. "He was cutting funerals to half-price, and these black folks just went running over there."
Spencer points out that if his rivals aren't making the kind of money they used to, it's their own fault.
"They say I cut prices," he says. "But the real problem was that they were asleep professionally. I came in at an opportune time. My cohorts felt like the families would accept any type of service they cared to give. As the Proverbs say, 'They had ease in Zion.' There was no refurbishing of funeral home facilities, no new construction, and what black families had long revered and respected was not even there anymore."
Some say Spencer's entry as a major player in the Fort Worth funeral home scene caused a war of sorts--with some rival funeral directors fighting over bodies, turning each other in to the state Funeral Service Commission, and generally trying to make life miserable for one another.
Spencer proved himself quite up to the battle.
"He would underprice everybody," Pinkston says. "He would lose money on a body just to get the body away from me. He took 50 percent of everybody's business."
Pinkston's antipathy for Spencer goes back to 1988, when he claims Spencer offered his services cheaper than the price Pinkston had already charged a grieving family.
The body had been delivered to Pinkston's funeral home. But the family, lured by the lower price, decided to have Spencer perform the funeral instead.
Pinkston was incensed. He refused to hand over the body to Spencer.
"If I called, he cursed me out," Spencer would complain to the Texas Funeral Service Commission. "This saga went on for more than three hours. Mr. [Lee] Pinkston III threatened to kill me if I came [to get the body]."
After an investigation of Spencer's complaint, the Funeral Service Commission suspended Lee Pinkston's funeral director's license for six months and fined him $2,000. Pinkston has since left the funeral home and works as a car salesman for a Lincoln-Mercury dealership.
In 1992, Spencer turned in Charles Williams of Rev's Funeral Home after a fight over a body, according to Funeral Service Commission records. Spencer alleged that Williams, after cussing him out, jumped up and slapped him across the face. "He became more and more belligerent and used the worst profanity with my staff present and a family here doing business," Spencer wrote in his complaint to the commission. "He threatened to kill me and kick my ____ if I am ever caught away from the funeral home."
Williams told Funeral Service Commission investigators that he was just trying to push Spencer out of his personal space. Nonetheless, Spencer had also complained to Fort Worth police, and Williams would eventually plead no contest to a misdemeanor assault charge. (He did not return phone calls from the Dallas Observer.)
A few clients have also complained to the commission about Spencer. Audrey Brown, an elderly Fort Worth woman, says Spencer called her several times earlier this year after her son died, trying to get her to release the body to him. The dead man's children wanted Spencer to handle the arrangements; Brown wanted her son's body to go to Russell's Funeral Home. Brown alleges that Spencer called Brown several times well into the evening to persuade her to sign the necessary papers.
"That man worried me to death," Brown told the funeral commission.
Spencer's license was actually suspended once, in 1992, but not for fighting over corpses. The commission had begun investigating Spencer's wife, Rosalind, for supposedly falsifying embalming apprentice records.
The commission eventually ruled that Rosalind Spencer, who worked as an apprentice at Gregory Spencer Funeral Home, had submitted a commercial embalming company's work as her own in an attempt to get an embalming license. The commission fined the couple $4,000 each in 1992, revoked Rosalind's apprentice license, and suspended Gregory Spencer's embalming and funeral-director licenses for two years.
While Spencer could still preside over funerals, he wasn't allowed to hire any new apprentices or embalm bodies himself. The commission restored his licenses last year.
Spencer is clearly uncomfortable talking about his marriage, and the couple have since separated. Their divorce suit is pending in Tarrant County. In court filings, Rosalind Spencer states that she sought a divorce because the couple had not been living as man and wife.
Gregory Spencer declined to discuss the case, saying their separation was civil. "We're adults," he says, simply. Rosalind Spencer, who he says is attending a local university, could not be reached for comment.
Today, Spencer blames his earlier troubles on a conflict with former Funeral Service Commission director Larry Farrow.
"The executive director did not care for me at all," Spencer says. "His dislike was based on what people told him about me."
Farrow, who is now retired, didn't return phone calls from the Observer.
Despite temporarily losing his licenses, Spencer has clearly emerged the winner in Fort Worth's battle of the bodies, having reduced his competition to tattered also-rans.
Even funeral directors who left Spencer's muster a few words of admiration today. "If a person really wants to learn how to be a good funeral director, he is probably the best funeral director in the Metroplex," says Barbara Breeden of Fort Worth. "But he's a poor manager. He doesn't know how to manage people."
Breeden, who worked for Spencer for three years, says the man is devoted to grieving families. "He taught us that a funeral should be personalized for each individual. You have to find out something about that family and learn about that person. A lot of funeral homes are like, 'Get 'em in, get 'em out.'"
But, Breeden adds, Spencer tended to be autocratic and unbending with his staff. "Gregory, he has that charisma mentality. He didn't like to be challenged, and I am not the type of person to be led."
The last two years, Spencer has settled into his role as a community leader, minister, and undertaker. With a few notable exceptions, he is well-accepted--though ever the subject of gossip.
The black community offered its support when two white men ran Spencer's car off a rural Tarrant County road in September 1994. Spencer says the men yelled racial slurs at him and fired a gun in his direction. The men denied having a gun, and neither police nor witnesses spotted a firearm.
The men were eventually convicted of misdemeanor charges of reckless driving and disorderly conduct, respectively, which angered Spencer and his supporters. But a Fort Worth police detective defended the amount of work the officers put into the investigation, calling it "the most intensive misdemeanor case of my career."
Also in 1994, Spencer helped organize a march of mothers mourning their dead sons--young black men who'd become victims of gang violence. Leading a haunting procession of more than 100 people, Spencer marched alongside a sky-blue coffin drawn by a horse and buggy.
Today, he harangues gang members every time they attend a homeboy's funeral. "He was yours," he tells them. "But now, in death, he belongs to his family."
He has predicted to certain gangsters, "I'll be burying you next."
Spencer seemed to be enjoying his profile in the community. He started planning a men's summit, a school, and a playground. His hard work had paid off.
Then, in July 1994, Spencer had a disturbing experience. He'd tried to withdraw $12,250 from his life insurance policy. But several weeks after requesting the money, he still hadn't heard anything from the insurance company. When he finally called the company, he was told the check had already been cut and forwarded to Spencer's insurance agent of 18 years, William C. Cook of Fort Worth--according to a police report.
Cook was well-known at the funeral home as a charming, well-dressed visitor with a taste for expensive cars. He stopped in frequently, employees recall, to brief Spencer on his policies and sometimes collect payments. Now when Spencer phoned his insurance agent, Cook wouldn't return the call.
After doing some investigating on his own, Spencer complained in December to the state insurance department that his signature had been forged on the $12,250 check, and the money cashed through the bank account of a neighboring church--where Spencer says Cook was a member. (Cook did not respond to numerous requests for an interview with the Observer.)
In his complaint, Spencer states that he also learned, while ferreting out what had become of his $12,250, that Cook and Spencer's former bookkeeper, Jimmie Hudson, had taken out a $50,000 life insurance policy on the undertaker. Cook, according to insurance department records, signed his name as a witness on the policy application.
A distraught Spencer turned over this information to Fort Worth police. He told officers he never authorized Hudson or Cook to take out a policy on his life.
According to police reports, when the policy initially went into effect, Spencer's mother (now deceased) was to be the beneficiary. "However," the report states, "after the insurance had already been into effect, this Jimmie Hudson had changed the policy to make her[self] the beneficiary."
Hudson denies all of the allegations. "All I ever did was try to help Gregory," she told the Observer. She declined further comment.
But according to insurance company records turned over to state investigators, Hudson made all the payments on the life insurance policy through her personal checking account, and all notices were sent to her home.
"I have been mentally distraught at the idea of someone insuring my life without a reasonable insurable interest," Spencer wrote in his complaint to the state insurance department. The agency is investigating Spencer's complaints against Hudson and Cook; the cases are still open.
On January 30, 1995, Fort Worth police issued an arrest warrant for Cook in connection with the missing $12,250. Cook turned himself in the next day, and was released on his own recognizance.
Some time after Spencer had filed his complaint with the state insurance department, its investigators learned that Cook had been operating illegally as an insurance agent--his license had been revoked in 1991. Insurance department records show, in fact, that Cook has had many complaints lodged against him--and has compiled a long list of disgruntled clients.
Today, Spencer claims the insurance cases are tied to the attacks on his life--despite Fort Worth police detective J.H. Ladd's statement that Cook and Hudson aren't considered suspects.
Spencer says he's anguished by his belief that police aren't concerned about the unauthorized life insurance policy. Someone's out to get him, he maintains, and no one in authority seems to care.
To be sure, some of Spencer's enemies are clearly tickled by the undertaker's troubles.
"If I were a younger man," says Thomas Russell, "I'd kill him myself."
Spencer, as always, puts such spiteful talk in the Lord's hands.
"I'm such an envied person--people don't understand how I've gained my success," Spencer says. "But it has been honest, godly success.
"The wisdom of man don't bother me," he adds. "The Lord will deal with these fools.
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