Friends gather to honor the late Spence ‘Pops’ Wilson


By Dave Schwab

Friends of 99-year-old Edward Spencer “Pops” Wilson, who died on Thanksgiving Day, packed La Jolla Presbyterian Church Fellowship Hall Saturday, Dec. 10 for a celebration of his life and to talk about the man who became a legend in La Jolla in his own time.

Guests were treated to a surprise repast: Jack in the Box hamburgers.

“That was his favorite food and you know he lived to be almost 100,” noted Nancy Miller, longtime friend and caretaker of Wilson who used to babysit her — and countless others — who grew up in La Jolla watching matinee movies at the Grenada and Cove theaters, which Wilson managed from 1929 until retiring in 1989.

“Spence would have wanted to make it to 100, but his heart just got tired. He did die quickly and rather quietly,” Miller said.

“He’s actually coming back,” quipped Kiwanian Tom Henry, emcee, about a glitch in the program that listed Wilson’s birth year as 2012. “It was actually 1912.”

Wilson had perfect attendance at La Jolla Kiwanis Club from 1937 (the year he joined) until his death.

“What yu think you’re gonna do here boy?” Wilson asked wildlife photographer Tom Mangelsen during their first encounter while Mangelsen’s Images of Nature art gallery was being built on Girard Avenue. “I said, ‘I’m going to open up a wildlife photography gallery.’ Spence looked at me with a big smile and said, ‘Well boy, good luck. I’ve seen a lot of things come and go in La Jolla, but never a wildlife photography gallery.’ ”

Mangelsen and Wilson became good friends and Spence accompanied Mangelsen on his wildlife photography expeditions, and to holiday visits at his home in Moose, Wyoming. Wilson later volunteered his time working at Mangelsen’s gallery after retiring and became a fixture there.

“Spence seemed to know everyone,” noted lifelong friend Wally Robertson, Jr., who worked for Wilson at the Cove Theater.

Robertson read a statement from the late movie actor Cliff Robertson, who grew up in La Jolla and attended Wilson’s matinees, about the theater manager that said, “Spence would keep us in line, but also take us for picnics at the nearby Cove Park.”

“I wish I would have known him sooner and longer,” concluded Mangelsen speaking for all assembled. “Spencer was one of a kind. The mold had been broken. It’s highly unlikely any of us will ever experience the kind of gifts Spence gave us again.”

Tax-deductible donations in his memory can be made to the Spence Wilson Scholarship Fund at La Jolla Kiwanis Foundation, P.O. Box 81, La Jolla, Ca., 92038.