John Robert Spence died May 14, 2023, from pancreatic cancer. He was 77 years old.
John spent most of his childhood in East Lansing, Michigan; and most of his adult life in Ames, Iowa. He
completed his doctorate in nuclear physics from Iowa State University.
John worked as an Ames Laboratory Research Scientist from 1989 until 2007. After his retirement, he
continued to work as a visiting scientist for the Iowa State University Nuclear Theory group. His most
recent work, which he co-authored with Dr. Bo Basili and Dr. James Vary, is under review for journal
John was proceeded in death by his parents, Robert Dean Spence and Helen Holbrook Spence of East
Lansing, Michigan. He is survived by three sisters: Elizabeth Spence (East Lansing, Michigan), Janet
Spence (Gahanna, Ohio), and Barbara Staubs (Brevard. North Carolina); their husbands, children, and
John's family would particularly like to thank the three generations of caregivers who became his second
family -- MaryLynn Hance, Victoria Smith, and Shania Smith.
They would also like to express their gratitude to the Ames Friends who welcomed him into their
The Ames Friends will hold a Meeting of Worship with Attention to John Spence's Memorial on
Saturday, June 24, 11 a.m. in the Ames Friends Meeting House, 121 S Maple Ave, Ames, IA
The Meeting of Worship will be accessible on Zoom:
Zz09. Passcode: 059916
John was a big part of mine and my families lives. I started working with John when I was a freshman in high school, helping him by recording manuals he needed read. That would be the start of a 12 year long friendship for me. Over the years I helped John with various things, but my favorite had to be helping him make a dating profile where he actually met someone he would consider a good friend. When I moved to Arizona, my mom, Victoria, would still FaceTime me weekly so I could see John and check in on how things were going. I’m blessed I was given the opportunity to know John so well. He taught me so much more than I could have hoped for and the biggest imprint he has in my life is that no matter how good or bad the day is, it will always be retched ❤️ thank you John for being the kind and loving soul you were, you are deeply missed. Until next time friend ❤️
Dr. John Spence was a kind and interesting man. We had conversations about a variety of subjects, including philosophy of life, nuclear reactors, and astronomy. His knowledge about the latter two exceeded mine, of course. He had friends and family who were loyal to him.
Reflections on John Spence
As a man, John Robert Spence was a quiet, kind, unassuming person. He entered many people’s lives without being fully seen as the gentle, quirky spirit that he was. It would have been easy to assume John was the curmudgeon he pretended to be, when he told anyone who asked that he was “wretched” -- one of his trademark responses that he found endlessly funny.
For those of us who knew him well, John had a childlike curiosity that was judgment free. He preferred to listen rather than talk. He remained open to all ideas. He loved to play. He often spoke of his challenges, problems, and frustrations in terms of dragons. In return, the people who knew him often gave him toy dragons, much to his delight.
John conquered his share of “dragons.” Throughout his life, he faced a debilitating disease that made his accomplishments seem all the more impressive. But it should be said that he always had friends, mentors, and protectors who watched over him. For John, a kind word or a warm smile from a passing stranger could often make a difference in his day. But he could not have survived as well as he did without the family support of three generations of caregivers: MaryLynn Hance, Victoria Smith, and Shania Smith.
Another major force in John’s life was his mentor, Dr. James P. Vary, who oversaw his doctorate degree in nuclear physics from Iowa State University. The connection continued as John pursued his interests as a research scientist for Iowa State’s High Energy Nuclear Group, under the leadership of Dr. Vary. During his career, John co-authored more than ten scientific papers that were published in leading, peer-reviewed journals.
Even after his retirement in 2007, John continued his work as a visiting scientist. At the time of his death, he was leading a project with the High Energy Nuclear Group. Professor Vary has described John’s scientific approach as unusual because he didn’t immediately accept common assumptions, instead he offered creative, innovative solutions.
I should mention that I am writing this as a loving sister, without deep understanding of John’s interests, but once in a casual conversation, when he was describing his work, John mentioned “virtual particles.” From what I can gather, virtual particles are short-lived, unobservable particles that affect interactions between observable particles in measurable ways.
In a leap of faith and with a great deal of poetic license, I like to think of John’s spirit much like the virtual particles affecting all who knew him. It could seem like just a flicker of awareness, but it could also have unpredictable, long-term effects.
When we were children, John taught me the names of stars. He showed me the Milky Way. He loved to think of the mysterious, the uncertain worlds of possibilities.
John came to the Quaker faith relatively recently. Sometimes he would try to explain it to me. One of the aspects that impressed him most was the silent reflection. I think it was the appreciation for wonder that first attracted him.
He told me how grateful he was to have found a community of open, loving spirits. In one of his last coherent conversations, he told me he was planning to attend the next meeting and explain what had happened to him. Unfortunately, that was not to be.
In his last few days, John was unable to speak, but he was responsive to my calls. He liked to hear my assurances that the soul never dies. I know that he will always be with me in many different forms and unpredictable ways. I hope that his spirit lives on in all of us.
John’s sister, Elizabeth Spence
John will be missed by so many!!❤️
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