Town Hall Chief: A Life of Toils and Triumphs

<i> Laviola is a View intern from Cal State Fullerton</i>

As Fran Frey Spears sits in the spacious family room of her “dream house” in Redondo Beach, nibbling fruit and cheese and enjoying the sprawling ocean view, the living seems easy.

The tranquil domestic scene is in contrast, however, with Spears’ career world, a masculine world of movers and shakers who recently hired her to be the first female president in the 49-year history of Town Hall of California.

The comfortable picture also conceals the struggle that Spears, 44, faced about five years ago when the man she was about to marry, pediatrician Robert L. Spears, was struck with the crippling Guillain-Barre syndrome.


Cause Uncertain

A devastating disease of uncertain origin, it strikes suddenly, causing temporary paralysis beginning at the feet and moving up through the body. Researchers believe it occurs when antibodies attacking a virus--usually from a mild infection--begin to invade the peripheral nervous system, causing paralysis.

Robert Spears recovered, and the couple were married on New Year’s Day, 1982. But three months later he was struck with a related, and more serious, disease--transverse myelitis. An inflammation of the spinal cord that can be fatal, the disease has left his legs partially stiff and spastic.

According to his wife, however, determination and hard work have enabled him to regain his golf game, to play doubles tennis and to return to work as medical director of Childrens Hospital of Los Angeles.

“Having her close by when I was so sick gave meaning to our life,” the 54-year-old doctor said. “It brought its own rewards.”

Referring to the experience as maturing, he said he gained perspective on life while lying in bed for many weeks not knowing whether he would walk again.

Fran Spears was divorced for 10 years before she met her present husband, who has three children from a previous marriage. She said she has devoted most of her professional life to working with children, possibly because she never had any of her own.

Dividing Their Time

The Spearses reserve one evening a week for a “date.” They spend time with his children, who love the beach, and with their two Lhasa apso dogs, Teddy and Bear, cuddly little balls of fur that she described as “the kind you look at and laugh.”

“They are together all the time, so when we holler ‘Here, Teddy Bear,’ they come running,” Robert Spears said.

In addition to loving nature, animals, gardening, jogging, tennis and walks along the beach, Fran Spears said, she loves her work.

Armed with an impressive resume, she was hired by Town Hall’s board of governors in January to expand and revitalize the nonprofit organization for its 50th anniversary next year. With 5,000 members--three-quarters of them male, mostly Los Angeles businessmen--Town Hall provides a forum for the discussion, debate and study of local, national and international issues.

Members may attend an average of three meetings a week to listen to speeches by leaders in business, finance, education and government.

In addition, Town Hall gives people an opportunity to meet. Business cards, many of them introducing board chairmen or company presidents, are exchanged during luncheon meetings downtown at the Hilton or the Stock Exchange Club. There is also a Town Hall West and a new Orange County section.

Described by Town Hall officials as an unbiased, apolitical group, it has been an instrument for change through its special study reports, according to Spears. For example, Town Hall’s analysis of the pension plans of city and county employees is considered a catalyst for reformation of the city of Los Angeles’ fire and police pension plans.

Started as Social Worker

According to Roland Headlee, who will retire next year after 19 years as executive director, every successful presidential candidate since Herbert Hoover has spoken at Town Hall meetings, as well as “a lot of unsuccessful ones.”

Spears began her trek toward the top of Town Hall starting as a social worker for Los Angeles County in 1964 after graduating from USC with a degree in French. In her 17 years at the county she progressed steadily, organizing such projects as the health and justice systems. Before leaving in 1981, she had become the first female chief of intergovernmental relations and special programs and the only woman in top management in the chief administrative office.

“I have been blessed with being in the right place at the right time, coupled with being very, very good at what I do,” she said. “But I have long believed that a woman has to be almost twice as good at her position, she needs to stand out. And I have always worked hard to do that.”

Her next job was director of planning, marketing and public affairs for Childrens Hospital, where she met her husband. Then she spent three years as executive director of California Special Olympics, before going to work for Town Hall.

Spears’ professional experience with community service organizations where volunteers are involved, “together with what I have to admit is a very high energy level,” meshed with Town Hall’s effort to increase membership and develop financial support from local businesses.

A high energy level is a trait Spears respects. She uses the term frequently to describe people she most admires, leaders in Los Angeles with whom she has worked.

For instance, there is Harry L. Hufford, who was chief administrative officer of the county when he met Spears 15 years ago and who advised her to join Town Hall as a member eight years ago. Hufford, chairman of the search committee for the board of governors and currently chief administrative officer of a major Los Angeles law firm, recommended Spears for the presidency.

“I didn’t have to do more than bring her name in and present her to the committee,” he said. “She did the rest.”

An obvious influence on Spears’ life has been her father, Justin Sasse, who died when she was 12. Although she was the middle child with a brother and sister, before her father died he told her to take care of the family for him, to be as responsible as she had always been.

“I took that very much to heart. If I have a job, by God, that comes first. He treated me as a little person, not just a little kid,” Spears remembered.

Her Third Love

Spears was born in Colorado, and her family moved to the San Fernando Valley when she was 9. She was graduated from North Hollywood High School in 1960.

If her husband is her first love and work her second, education runs a close third. She has gotten a master’s degree in public administration from the Consortium of California State Universities and Colleges and is working on her doctorate at USC.

Helping lead Town Hall “into its next 50 years,” Spears is just where she wants to be.

“I am now in what is probably the most desirable situation of all. It fits in with our life,” she said. “We discuss being able to live our life the way we want to--and I am not talking about financially, but the quality of life and how we spend time.”

That does not mean Fran Spears can be found lounging around her dream house often.

And when no one is home to answer the Spears’ telephone, she has a word of encouragement for callers via her answering machine: “The difference between ordinary and extraordinary is that little extra.”