GNADENHUTTEN — Dale Spencer plops down in the beat up chair on wheels he uses in his garage workshop. Without skipping a beat, he moves right into working on his latest rocking chair, using one of his jiggs to measure the distance between each piece of pine he nails down. Marty Hupp, his nephew, stepped into the room after him and flicked on the lights.
"You usually have to do that," Hupp said. "It’s an eerie feeling out here. You walk into total darkness and he’s out here messing with saws."
After Spencer gets two small planks in place, he wheels himself over to grab another piece. He can only walk short distances due to "several surgeries and two little strokes."
"I don’t get around as easily as I used to," Spencer muttered.
Nevermind that he’s blind. That’s no trouble for him.
Next, he reaches into a pile of precut wooden templates that help him with measurements. He feels three of them, then grabs the right one out with a satisfied grunt. His "jiggs" are all he needs to work with wood. Each one is a specific length and width, and each one has its precise place in his shop.
There’s at least 100 of them hung up on the walls. Probably more.
"I build it in my head," Spencer said. "Everything just sort of falls into place."
Spencer has a long list of items he’s crafted— cabinets, tables, bars, you name it. All he has to do is feel something, and then he can make it. Hupp said sometimes all he needs is a description, and he’s off to the races. His latest creation is a sturdy, black-stained rocking chair that glides smoothly along the ground. The chairs are his specialty.
"It’s a God-given gift," Spencer said. "I hadn’t done any of this before. I had a woodshop class in high school, and that was about it."
When he says before, he means before August 8, 1972— the day he went blind.
Spencer had been in his brother Andy’s garage, working underneath his car. He was in a hurry and hadn’t put it up on blocks. When the jack that had held the car up gave out, two tons of metal came crashing down on his head. Hupp, Andy’s son, was there when they found him.
"It looked like half his face was gone," Hupp said. "The doctor said it was like someone had set an egg on the ground and stomped on it."
The worst of the bleeding was internal and required emergency surgery. Spencer’s optic nerves were severed and he lost most of the hearing in his left ear. Doctors told the family twice that he wouldn’t make it, then said he would be a vegetable if he did.
"I’m a pretty darn good vegetable," Spencer quipped.
It was a long road to go from the hospital to carpentry. After he was released. Spencer moved in with the Hupp’s and his brother Andy helped him recover.
"At 3 p.m. every day, I got sick to my stomach," Spencer said. "I knew my brother was coming and I had to try and walk. I had to learn everything over again like a baby. My brother got me out, got me going."
His brother, now deceased, was one of the people who used to help him in his workshop. His second wife, Sandy, worked with him too. They met after his accident, and married soon after. She’s gone now as well, but he speaks of her often. The two dates he remembered perfectly were the day of his accident and the day of her death. They started an upholstery business together, which eventually led to him starting woodwork. Since then, he’s been managing just fine for the most part.
"I’ve only lost one finger," he jokes, lifting up his right index finger, which was missing the tip.
The time he spends in his garage workshop is sacred to him. It’s where he’s worked with his closest loved ones. More than that, it’s the place where he’s the master of his surroundings.
"It’s my only outlet in life," Spencer said. "I can’t get out or ride in the car unless someone takes me. But I can get in that garage and do things."
Marty Hupp and his brother Bill help out Spencer when they can now. "Help" is a bit of an overstatement— the only thing Spencer can’t do is run a bandsaw since he can’t see to cut a straight line. The other saws have guards in place to make sure he cuts straight. Most of the time, he’s the one showing his helpers what to do.
"He’s a teacher," Marty Hupp said.
Spencer reflected on the many trials life had placed in front of him with positivity. Passion and purpose fortified him against the sorrows of the past. People often go through times where it’s hard to do anything but give up, but Spencer saw it through. Instead of giving up, he grew.
"I miss a lot of things, I really do. But life goes on, like it or not," Spencer said. "I’m blessed."