Helen E. Spruce, 77, an elementary teacher in the Toledo Public Schools for nearly 20 years who was a single mother of four when she went to college, died Thursday in Toledo Hospital.
She had pancreatic cancer, but her death may have been caused by a blood clot that traveled to her lungs, her son, Kenneth, said.
Mrs. Spruce taught first through fourth grades during about 17 years at Cherry Elementary School, retiring in 1990.
"She was, at heart, very personable, very warm, very outgoing," her son said. "She loved children. She wanted to see other people do well."
Reba Robinson, a friend since their teen years in Birmingham, Ala., said: "She enjoyed the kids learning [and] she was able to teach them."
Mrs. Spruce moved to Toledo in the early 1950s with her then-husband, George Spruce, Jr., from Birmingham, Ala., to "escape the virulent racism that was prevalent," their son said, and to seek economic opportunity.
"She was a very ambitious, exuberant young lady who saw within herself the opportunity to move forward, but she didn't see that in Birmingham," her son said.
The Spruces later divorced.
She became a nurse's aide at Mercy Hospital and Toledo Hospital. While working, she cared for her children, her mother, and a sister. When her by-then former husband died in the late 1960s, she used his veteran's benefits and insurance to buy a duplex in the Old West End, which brought economic security to the family, her son said.
She also went to the University of Toledo. She was an organizer with the Ashland Avenue urban renewal program, formed as part of President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. Mrs. Spruce's duties included helping neighbors form block clubs and coaching them in how to run meetings and campaign for change.
She eventually received associate's, bachelor's, and master's degrees from UT.
"She was a person who didn't stop," Mrs. Robinson said. "She was a very smart person."
Mrs. Spruce put aside social activities for schoolwork, often spending long hours after work, after dinner, studying at the family table.
"I learned what college was about, how you had to be successful, by watching my mother at the dinner table all those years," said her son, who has been a community college political science teacher. "One of the common threads through my mother's life is this zest for the upward climb."
Mrs. Spruce was a 22-year member of St. Mark's Baptist Church and, since its formation in 1981, of Charity Baptist Church, where she'd been church clerk and a Sunday school teacher.
Surviving are her son, Kenneth; daughters, Sherry Newton-Frost and Simone Renee Spruce; 11 great-grandchildren, and a great-great-grandson.
Visitation will be from 5 to 7 p.m. tomorrow in the C. Brown Mortuary. Services will be at 11 a.m. Tuesday in Charity Baptist Church, with a family hour in the church at 10 a.m. Tuesday.