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Wednesday, Jan 04 2012 06:55 PM

Bakersfield centenarian saw the world

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    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    Talking about her days as a pilot and member of the female aviation group the 99s brought a smile to Priscilla Spencer's face. Spencer is turning 100 years old this week.

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    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    Priscilla Spencer, back row, third from right, and the Bakersfield area 99s, a female aviation group. Year of photo is unknown.

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BY JILL COWAN Californian staff writer jcowan@bakersfield.com

Around the world in 80 days?

For longtime Bakersfield resident Priscilla Spencer, that's positively glacial.

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Celebrate Priscilla Spencer's 100th birthday at an open house from 2 to 4 p.m. Saturday at the Columbus Estates retirement community. For more information, call 872-5855.

Spencer -- who turns 100 Thursday -- once saw the world in two weeks.

It was in 1973 through a program called "Classroom in the Sky." Spencer said she tagged along with a teacher she "happened to know" who had been looking for a roommate for the trip.

"We pit-stopped," she joked Wednesday during a chat about her flying days in her room at the Columbus Estates retirement community in northeast Bakersfield. "(We) just hopped from one city to the next."

Though the white-haired, sharp-witted centenarian has experienced enough to fill at least two lifetimes, she mostly demurred when asked how she managed to pack all of her adventures in over the last century.

"It had nothing to do with me," she said more than once. "I just got to go along for the ride."

But what a ride it's been.

Born in Vermont in 1912, Spencer moved to Canada with her family shortly thereafter, said Spencer's daughter, Coral Poole-Clark. Then, in 1921, the family settled in the Weedpatch area.

Poole-Clark (who filled in some of Spencer's history since her mother suffers from dementia) said her parents divorced when Poole-Clark, now 72, was very young.

Spencer raised Poole-Clark as a single parent, working first as a legal secretary then for the oil company that eventually became ARCO.

And for fun, Spencer became a pilot -- well, a pilot by most standards, anyway.

"I earned my flying license, then I quit flying," she quipped. "If that makes me a pilot, then so be it."

Spencer earned her license in the 1940s, then joined the Ninety-Nines, an international organization for women pilots started in 1929.

She also joined the local branch of the Civil Air Patrol, Poole-Clark said, which was started around World War II to help find downed pilots.

"It was right after the war so there wasn't much doing," Spencer said of the Patrol. "We certainly didn't find Amelia Earhart."

It was through the Ninety-Nines that Spencer said she made some of her most enduring friendships.

One of those friends, Joan Paynter, 82,said she remembered meeting Spencer years ago at a Bakersfield chapter meeting.

"I remember how friendly she was, how interested she was in me," Paynter said. "Of all the members I've met, she stands out as being so welcoming."

Paynter also recalled that Spencer flew in a "Powder Puff Derby," or all-female air race, as a co-pilot.

"Those air races are a tremendous learning experience," Paynter said.

Spencer, too, remembered that transcontinental flight from Bakersfield to Atlantic City, N.J.

"Actually, we were in a race and we did not win," she deadpanned. "My cousin owned the plane."

One of her first solo flights, Spencer recalled, was a little more thrilling.

"I was so dumb," she said. "I was out flying (near Lost Hills) and I pulled the choke, which is what you're supposed to do when you land. And the plane died. It wasn't supposed to die -- not with me in it."

Whether she flew the plane or not, Poole-Clark said, her mother has always "loved to travel."

When Poole-Clark and her late husband visited Mexico City, Munich, Los Angeles, Seoul and Barcelona in conjunction with the summer Olympics, Spencer went with them.

"She made it," Poole-Clark said. "She went everywhere with us."

Ultimately, Spencer said she could never pick a favorite destination.

"I always come back to Bakersfield," she said.

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