Rina Spence, a pioneer in women’s health care and the first female hospital president in the state of Massachusetts, passed away on June 10 in Cambridge. She was 72.
The cause of death was cancer, according to her daughter, Rebecca Spence.
Born on Oct. 24, 1948, after her parents met in Jerusalem, Rina Spence, née Klausner, had a storied career in public service that took her from Boston to Monaco to the Middle East, where she worked as a health care advisor.
Rina served for ten years as the chief executive officer of Emerson Hospital in Concord, and later founded the Spence Centers for Women’s Health, which combined Eastern and Western medicine, creating a holistic model for women’s health care.
As Rina was nearing the end of her two-year struggle with cancer, she was determined to live long enough to attend her granddaughter, Eliza Spence’s bat mitzvah, which she did last month in New York. “It’s what kept her going,” said Rebecca. “It felt like a miracle that she made it.”
Rina came from a centuries-old Palestinian-Jewish family originating in Yemen on one side and Hebron on the other. Rina’s paternal great-grandfather was Jacob Adler, a famous Yiddish writer in New York who was a columnist for the Yiddish Forverts. His grandson, Samuel Klausner, was a young Zionist who left New York for Jerusalem, where he met a sabra, Bracha (Turgeman) Klausner, whom he married in Tel Aviv. In 1948, the year the state of Israel was created, the couple took a ship to New York so their daughter, Rina, would be born in America. Rina spoke Hebrew and had an early education in Israel, but the family eventually settled in New York.
Rina graduated from Boston University and began her career as a teacher. In 1972, at the age of 24, she founded New Perspectives School in Brookline, a private high school for emotionally troubled teenagers (now the Beacon School in Watertown). She earned a master’s degree in public administration from the Harvard Kennedy School, and worked in Massachusetts state government, where she met and later married Harry Spence. They divorced after 14 years.
From 1984 to 1994, Rina served as CEO of Emerson Hospital while also raising two children. “She worked all the time. She was a high-powered career mom,” said Rebecca. “But she was always close by, and when I went to middle school, she made my lunch every day before going to work.”
In 1996, after leaving Emerson Hospital, Rina founded the Spence Centers for Women’s Health, a for-profit chain with locations in Cambridge, Wellesley, and Braintree. With financing from venture capitalists, she rapidly expanded. “The Spence Centers were very successful in terms of getting patients, but they didn’t turn a profit fast enough for the investors,” said Rebecca. In a heartbreaking turn of events, the venture ended after three years.
Fast-paced and driven, Rina never slowed down. She reinvented herself as a health care consultant and an international figure in Europe and the Middle East, bridging cultural gaps and mentoring young women across the globe. In the early 2000s, she worked in Saudi Arabia as a health care advisor to a global company, and ultimately consulted to health care organizations in Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.
In 2008, she married Gary Countryman, former CEO of Liberty Mutual Insurance Company. The couple enjoyed time in their second home in St.-Jean-Cap-Ferrat in southern France and vacationed in the Maldives. Rina made many friends all over the world, including in Monaco, where, after meeting the ambassador to the U.S., she earned the title of honorary consulate of Monaco in Boston. “She was the ultimate networker,” said Rebecca.
Rina Spence is survived by her husband, Gary Countryman; her son, Avi Garbow, and daughter-in-law, Nancy Anderson, of Washington, D.C.; her son, Adam Spence, and daughter-in-law, Ann Spence, of New York; her daughter, Rebecca Spence, of Taos, New Mexico; her father, Samuel Klausner; her sisters, Tamar Klein and Daphne Klausner; her brother, Jonathan Klausner; and six grandchildren.