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Nancy Spessard Phelan

February 05, 2011|By JANET HEIM | janeth@herald-mail.com
  • Vince and Nancy Phelan pose for this undated church directory photo.
Submitted photo

Nancy Spessard Phelan was known for helping others, whether it was sewing outfits for her daughters, baking or cooking for fundraisers, or helping behind the scenes at church, Little League or for the Greencastle Lioness Club.

"She was a doer. She loved to be involved," said her husband Vincent "Vince" Phelan.

Nancy, whose maiden name was Barnhart, grew up in the Mount Lena area, one of 10 children, one of whom died at birth.

"She looked out for everybody from top to bottom. She didn't think of herself. She thought about everybody else," said Barbara Jean Wagner of Boonsboro, one of Nancy's younger sisters who goes by Jean.

Jolinda Beers said her mother was grateful she rose above her poverty-stricken childhood, although it was filled with love.

Nancy met her first husband, Russell "Junie" Spessard, at a dance while she still was in high school. He was nine years older than she and had just gotten out of the military.

They married and had three children — Jerry, Darla Springer and Jolinda. The family lived at Locust Point before moving to a farm Nancy's parents, Grace and Gerald Barnhart, rented on Jefferson Boulevard.

There was no running water, electricity or heat in the house in which the Spessard family lived. Jobs were scarce, so Nancy worked as a seamstress, ironed and baby-sat, while Junie did odd jobs shoveling snow and painting fences and garages.  

Despite their limited means, Jerry has fond childhood memories — collecting water from Antietam Creek several times a day to use in the house, tending the vegetable garden and raising their own chickens for Sunday dinners.

Nancy hand washed the clothes, then once a week, she and Jerry walked one mile to the Laundromat, carrying their laundry. The highlight for him was the Coca-Cola his mother bought him as they waited for the laundry.

"I wouldn't give up our childhood for anything. We had amazing parents," Jerry said.

Nancy and Junie moved their family to a house on Mulberry Street in Hagerstown when Jerry was 8, he said. It wasn't until that move that they had running water, electricity and their first TV.

Darla, who lives in Hedgesville, W.Va., said Nancy was an "amazing, amazing woman" and could make fun out of anything, which included special Saturday and Sunday rituals.

Nancy would pop popcorn and gather the family in front of the TV to watch "The Lawrence Welk Show." Nancy and Junie would dress up and entertain their children by dancing along with the music.
Sundays were for church, Sunday school and family dinners featuring freshly slaughtered chickens.

"I hated Saturday night when they killed those chickens, but it was good eating the next day."

Darla said her mother made her daughters' school clothes, Easter, prom, wedding and bridesmaid dresses, along with draperies and slipcovers. She could see a clothing item in the store and come home and make a pattern out of newspaper to re-create the look.

"Mom loved color. She wasn't wealthy, but she sure had beautiful clothes," said Jerry, who added that Nancy lived life to the fullest.

Jolinda said her mother was the kindest, most caring and giving person she knew.

"She indeed tried to make all our wishes come true," she said.

Nancy was known for her cooking skills and Darla said her mother made the best barbecue beef she has ever tasted.

Junie shared his wife's work ethic and Darla remembers him milking the cows by hand at night. Jerry, Darla and Jolinda agree that they learned the value of hard work from their parents.

Nancy liked to entertain, hosting family reunions and holiday meals. Living a few blocks from the Mummers Parade route, she invited family members back to their house for snacks afterward.

Things looked up for the family after Mack Trucks came to town, providing a steady income for Junie, who got a job in shipping and receiving, Jerry said.

As the children grew older, Nancy worked at Fairchild Aircraft and Angstrom Precision. Jerry said his mother didn't believe in unions and crossed the picket line when workers went on strike at Angstrom.

He said her lunch was stolen and her car egged, among other things.

"She was feisty, but didn't take anything from anybody," Jerry said.

"But she was a lady about it," Darla added.

"She always found the good in people," Vince said.

Junie died of a heart attack at age 66, only a few years after retiring from Mack.

Vince, whom Nancy eventually would marry, knew Junie through work, but had never met Nancy. Vince had relocated from New Jersey with Mack in 1961 and worked as traffic manager.

A widower, he lived in Greencastle, Pa. He met Nancy through a woman at his church, St. Mark the Evangelist Catholic Church in Greencastle.

After they married, Nancy continued to attend her church, Otterbein United Methodist in Hagerstown, even after she moved to Greencastle. She was a member there for more than 50 years.

"She was very committed at church, very regularly attending Sunday school and church," Jerry said.
Vince said Nancy told him she expected to get 20 years of marriage out of him and she died just weeks after their 20th wedding anniversary.

The couple's time together included lots of travel and time spent at Vince's Ocean City, Md., and Florida vacation homes. They also enjoyed dancing.

"Now I got nobody to dance with," Vince said.

Family was a priority and Nancy enjoyed time with eight grandchildren, 14 great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandson.

More than eight years ago, Nancy was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, which eventually left her wheelchair bound. She fought hard, followed her doctors' orders and never complained, her children said.

After breaking both hips at different times and recuperating at Ravenwood and Homewood nursing homes, she returned home.

Vince was able to keep her at home thanks to hospice care, but when he needed a break, Nancy would go to Jolinda's home in Keymar, Md., near Annapolis, where she died peacefully.

"It was a blessing having her in our home. She was just a dear woman," Jolinda said.

"I wake up some days and still can't believe she's gone. She was a class act," said Vince, who visits her grave daily.

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Editor's note: Each Sunday, The Herald-Mail runs "A Life Remembered." Each story in this continuing series takes a look back — through the eyes of family, friends, co-workers and others — at a member of the community who died recently. Today's "A Life Remembered" is about Nancy Alice Spessard Phelan, who died Jan. 16 at the age of 79. Her obituary was published in the Jan. 17 edition of The Herald-Mail.

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