Dan Spencer was a beloved sanitation supervisor for Ithaca.

Ithaca, N.Y. — Dan Spencer’s job was to keep the city clean.

The Ithaca native — who died unexpectedly this week — took up the task with eagle-eyed determination.

“He took pride in how the city looked,” said Ray Benjamin, Spencer’s supervisor and a friend for years.

Spencer was at work every morning at 3:30 a.m. By the time the garbage crews — “his men,” Benjamin says — arrived at 4 a.m., Spencer had their routes prepared and ready to go.

Dan Spencer

In the early morning hours, Spencer would make sure the stores were stocked with trash tags. He would issue warnings to those who ignored the city’s garbage rules, and followed-up to see if the city’s prior warnings had been heeded.

By 7 a.m., Spencer would be back in the office, fielding phone calls from those complaining about one thing or another.

“The people of the city were his customers, and he took care of them,” said Benjamin, Ithaca’s assistant superintendent of streets and facilities. “But he was firm — he didn’t let people walk on him. He was very good at what he did.”

A life-long Ithacan, Ithaca High School graduate and resident of the city’s north-side, Spencer died at the age of 56 on Tuesday. He leaves behind a wife and daughter, according to his obituary.

Spencer’s obituary says he worked in the city’s Department of Public Works for 36 years. Ithaca has lowered its flags in his honor, according to City Clerk Julie Holcomb.

Help for the ‘throwers’

Part of Spencer’s job as sanitation supervisor was to oversee the four garbage men that made up his crew.

One winter a few years ago, Spencer noticed that one of the men responsible for putting the trash in the truck — called “throwers,” according to Benjamin — was only wearing sneakers.

“They’re out there in the coldest part of the day,” Benjamin said of the throwers. “It’s a serious frostbite issue.”

Spencer took it upon himself to go out and buy the man a pair of boots with money out of his own pocket, according to Benjamin.

“He cared for his men,” Benjamin said, “and he took good care of them.”

The ‘Clark Griswold’ of Fall Creek

Beyond his work for the city, Spencer was a well-known member of his Ithaca community.

“Almost everyone in the city knew him,” Benjamin said.

Spencer, a generous man, bowled a few 300 games in his life, according to Benjamin. He enjoyed NASCAR and golf.

“He was the Clark Griswold of his Fall Creek neighborhood for his love of lighting up his home during the holidays,” his obituary states. “His family and many friends will miss his wonderfully dry sense of humor.”

A funeral will be held Monday, Oct. 13.

“He really was an amazing man,” said Holcomb, the city clerk. “Not only was he incredibly responsive to our internal departments, but he also worked with the public a lot. He really reached out to people.”

“He had a big impact. It was a huge loss.”

A sudden absence

After hearing of the death, Ray Benjamin spoke to Dan Spencer’s wife and expressed his condolences.

On Wednesday morning he came to work, at the city’s sanitation office on the west side.

Benjamin was one of the first ones there. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d had to help open the building, since Spencer was always the first one inside.

At that moment, Benjamin realized just how much Spencer did.

Nobody had taken the voicemails down. Some of the doors were locked. The lights hadn’t been turned on, and the hallways looked unfamiliarly dark.


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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.