William Belser Spong Jr.

William Belser Spong Jr. (1920–1997)

William Belser Spong Jr. was a Virginia lawyer and politician who served in the House of Delegates (1954–1955), the Senate of Virginia (1956–1966), and the United States Senate (1966–1973). He was born in Portsmouth on September 29, 1920, to William Belser Spong and Emily Nichols Spong. He attended public schools in Portsmouth and attended Hampden-Sydney College before receiving a law degree from the University of Virginia in 1947. Spong served in the 93rd Bomber Group of the Eighth Air Force during World War II (1939–1945). He was admitted to the Virginia Bar in 1947 and practiced law in Portsmouth. At the same time he lectured in law and government at the College of William and Mary. MORE...

 

In 1953 Spong was elected as a Democrat to the House of Delegates, where he served one term. During that time he was identified as one of the "Young Turks" who were challenging the leadership and policies of the Byrd Organization, the Democratic political machine run by Harry F. Byrd Sr. In 1956 Spong was elected to the Senate of Virginia, where he served for a decade. He opposed Massive Resistance legislation, voting instead for the local option plan, which permitted some integration of public schools. From 1958 to 1962, Spong was the chairman of the Commission on Public Education, which produced a noteworthy study of the needs of Virginia public schools during his tenure.

In 1966 Spong ran against A. Willis Robertson for a seat in the United States Senate. This proved to be a pivotal race that ended the Byrd regime's long control of Virginia politics. In an indirect attack on Robertson's age and the Byrd Organization's inertia, Spong characterized himself as "A Man for Today," rejecting the status quo and calling for forward-looking leadership. He criticized Robertson's votes against education, water pollution, and urban mass transit legislation as unresponsive to the needs of a changing Virginia. He won the hotly contested race by a meager 611 votes.

In the Senate, Spong served on the Public Works and Foreign Relations committees and helped to write the Clean Air Act and the War Powers Act. He also won attention for his controversial vote against President Richard Nixon's nomination of G. Harrold Carswell to the United States Supreme Court, which was rejected by the Senate. A moderate, soft-spoken individual known for his integrity and good humor, Spong once told an audience at the National Press Club that he and senators Russell Long and Hiram Fong were going to introduce a bill to protect the rights of songwriters in Hong Kong. The legislation, he joked, would be known as the Long Fong Spong Hong Kong Song Bill.

Spong was defeated for reelection in 1972 by Representative William Scott, who waged an aggressive media campaign against him, tying him to the anti–Vietnam War record and liberal social agenda of Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern. Spong did not respond to these attacks and went down to defeat in the Nixon landslide against McGovern.

In retirement Spong returned to the practice and teaching of law. From 1976 to 1985 he served as professor of law and dean of the Marshall-Wythe School of Law at the College of William and Mary. He is credited with improving the law school's reputation by upgrading its facilities and increasing the size of the student body and faculty. He served as president of the Virginia Bar Association in 1976 and was the court-appointed mediator in numerous legal cases—notably, the Westinghouse uranium case and the punitive damages litigation in the suits against the A. H. Robins Company, manufacturer of the faulty Dalkon Shield contraceptive device. Spong also continued his public service with terms on the State Council of Higher Education, the Board of Visitors of William and Mary, and other philanthropic boards. He served as interim president of Old Dominion University from 1988 to 1990.

Spong married Virginia Galliford in 1950; they had one son and one daughter. He died in Portsmouth on October 8, 1997, and is buried at the University of Virginia cemetery in Charlottesville.

Time Line

  • September 29, 1920 - William Belser Spong Jr. is born in Portsmouth to William Belser Spong and Emily Nichols Spong.
  • 1942–1945 - William Belser Spong Jr. serves in the 93rd Bomber Group of the Eighth Air Force.
  • 1947 - William Belser Spong Jr. graduates from the University of Virginia School of Law. That same year he is admitted to the Virginia Bar.
  • 1948–1949 - William Belser Spong Jr. lectures in law and government at the College of William and Mary.
  • 1950 - William Belser Spong Jr. marries Virginia Galliford; they will have one son and one daughter.
  • 1953 - William Belser Spong Jr. wins election to the House of Delegates; he will serve one term in office.
  • 1956–1966 - William Belser Spong Jr. serves as a Virginia state senator.
  • 1958–1962 - William Belser Spong Jr. chairs the Commission on Public Education, which produces a study of the needs of Virginia public schools.
  • 1966–1973 - William Belser Spong Jr. serves in the U.S. Senate.
  • 1966 - William Belser Spong Jr. runs against and defeats A. Willis Robertson for a seat in the U.S. Senate; his victory marks the beginning of the end of the Byrd Organization's control of Virginia politics.
  • December 30, 1966 - A. Willis Robertson resigns his Senate seat in order to give incumbent senator William Belser Spong Jr. some seniority.
  • 1972 - Representative William Scott defeats incumbent Senator William Belser Spong Jr. in Virginia's U.S. Senate race.
  • 1976–1985 - William Belser Spong Jr. serves as professor and dean of the Marshall-Wythe School of Law at the College of William and Mary.
  • 1976 - William Belser Spong Jr. is appointed president of the Virginia Bar Association.
  • 1988–1990 - William Belser Spong Jr. serves as the interim president of Old Dominion University.
  • October 8, 1997 - William Belser Spong Jr. dies of an aneurysm in Portsmouth at age seventy-seven.
  • December 27, 1997 - William Belser Spong Jr. is buried at the University of Virginia cemetery in Charlottesville.

References

Further Reading
"Spong, William Belser, Jr." Biographical Dictionary of the United States Congress, 1774–Present. http://www.bioguide.congress.gov.
"William Spong." Richmond Times-Dispatch, October 10, 1997.
Wilkinson, J. Harvie. Harry Byrd and the Changing Face of Virginia Politics, 1945–1966. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1968.
Cite This Entry
  • APA Citation:

    Heinemann, R. L. William Belser Spong Jr. (1920–1997). (2014, April 25). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Spong_William_Belser_Jr_1920-1997.

  • MLA Citation:

    Heinemann, Ronald L. "William Belser Spong Jr. (1920–1997)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 25 Apr. 2014. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: February 23, 2012 | Last modified: April 25, 2014


Contributed by Ronald L. Heinemann, a professor of history at Hampden-Sydney College.