Misunderstood in life, greatly missed in death – Loved ones remember a hard-working, loving mother whose son’s conviction drove her to God
Waco Tribune-Herald (TX) – Sunday, December 16, 2001
Author: CINDY VAN AUKEN ; Tribune-Herald staff writer
The public image of Juanita White has always been one of a rough-around-the-edges barmaid who was the mother of one of Waco’s most notorious killers.
But those who were closest to the 54-year-old Waco resident have a very different memory of her. They said that about a year before she died, White became a Christian and, just as the Bible commands, became a “new creature.”
“She had no more interest in (her old lifestyle) and became a very faithful Christian,” said Mary Russell, a close friend of White’s. “I found her to be a very generous, good-hearted, kind person. I grew to love her deeply.”
None of White’s friends or family members deny that most of her life would be considered unorthodox. She married five times and had five children: a boy and two girls by her first husband and two boys by her second husband.
Only the two boys from her second marriage, David and Steve Spence, grew up in her household. It was David Spence who made her family infamous in Waco when he was given two death sentences for murdering three teen-agers at Lake Waco in 1982.
Steve Spence, 38, said he remembers the family always being poor while he was growing up, that “it seemed like we had to move every time the rent was due.” But he said White was a loving mother, even though she wasn’t home a lot because of the long hours she worked.
The rumors that White was a prostitute and drug dealer and user simply were not true, Steve Spence said, despite such tales being included in police reports and some accounts of her murder’ case. His mother drank occasionally but that was as far as it went. He said because she worked at bars most of her life and was David’s mother probably explains the origin of those tales.
As difficult as it was for White to deal with such rumors and her son’s fate after he was convicted, some good came out of it, Steve Spence said. On a small scale, he said, he got to see even more clearly how much his mother loved her children. He said White believed from the start that his older brother was innocent of the Lake Waco murders and always stuck by David.
David Spence’s trouble was also what turned White toward the church, Russell said. It was soon after he received his first death sentence that White started faithfully attending South Manor Church of the Nazarene in Waco, she said.
Russell said it was during that period that she and “Nita” became close friends. Not only was Russell White’s Sunday School teacher, but Steve Spence had married Russell’s youngest daughter, Ruth.
“David’s trouble broke her heart and drove her to a deep faith, drove her to her knees is what she always said,” Russell said.
Once White became a Christian, her whole demeanor changed, Steve Spence said. She quit smoking. She didn’t curse like she used to when she got mad. Even her face seem to soften, he said.
“I could see her smile back on her face,” Steve Spence said. “That’s one of the things that I had a hard time with. How could God let that happen then?”
White also quit working as a barmaid and got into a new line of work. In December 1984, she started working for Uncle Dan’s Barbecue in Waco as a dishwasher and bus person. She was employed there until her death. In fact, she had just finished a shift at the restaurant the night she was killed.
Dan Henderson, owner of the restaurant, said White was a model worker who got along with all her co-workers. He said that though she must have been under a lot of pressure during the time she worked for him, she was always on time and always pleasant. He also remembers that she was deeply religious.
“I couldn’t ask for anyone better than Juanita,” Henderson said. “When we found out (about her death), we were all shocked. We couldn’t believe it had happened. . . . Me and my crew were probably some of the last people who saw her.”
Russell and Steve Spence remember that White loved to do crossword puzzles, crochet and paint, mainly landscapes. She was a wonderful cook, they said, and an insatiable reader.
“She worked all the time and had had a hard life so she wasn’t able to explore her talents fully,” Russell said. “But she was very smart.”
Russell said White was always appreciative when others did something for her and that, likewise, she was always looking for ways to help others. White didn’t understand, she said, how other Christians could turn their backs on people in need.
“When I looked at Nita, I saw a really good-hearted person,” Russell said. “She would not say anything unpleasant to anyone.”
Russell, who found White’s body after she didn’t show up at church that Sunday, said her friend’s death had a profound impact on her. Steve Spence said it completely changed his life. Not long after his mother’s death, he quit college and, unfortunately, he said, left Ruth for another woman.
But both Russell and Steve Spence said they still hold on to the hope of someday seeing White in heaven. Until then, they said they will greatly miss a beautiful woman whose life was taken away too soon.
“It was just a tragedy,” Russell said. “It was a rough one, because I really did love her.”
Cindy Van Auken can be reached at email@example.com or at 757-5744.