March 30, 1998 12:00 PM

LYING WITH HIS WIFE, Mary Morgan, in a recliner, and bathed in the reflection of the setting sun, Dr. Benjamin Spock left life the way he had urged parents to raise their children into it: in loving, protecting arms. The renowned pediatrician’s health had been ebbing for months, worn down by congestive heart failure, bouts of pneumonia and internal bleeding. Though he had escaped a close call last October—and was being tended to in his La Jolla, Calif., home by a retinue that included home nurses, attendants, a massage therapist and a macrobiotic cook—by the end of his morning yoga session on March 15, Spock, 94, was clearly weakening.

His personal physician, Dr. C. Gresham Bayne, arrived at 4 p.m., swaddled his patient in blankets and set him before the fire. “He was peacefully resting,” says Bayne. “Mary stayed with him the whole time, and he just gradually eased into the next life.”

It seemed a fittingly gentle end for a man who had brought peace of mind to the world’s parents for more than half a century. The kindly baby doctor came out with his plainspoken guidebook, first published as The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, in 1946, urging parents not to worry too much, to be flexible and, above all, to trust their own instincts. Signaling a radical departure from traditional child-rearing doctrine that called for rigid feeding schedules, stern discipline and the withholding of physical affection, Spock’s book was an instant hit, eventually selling almost 50 million copies in more than three dozen languages, according to his paperback publisher, Pocket Books. “He said, ‘Trust your instincts,’ and no one had done that before,” says Harvard professor and leading pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton. “He turned parenting back to parents.” Spock’s goal, realized in a 65-year career, was to treat parents as if they might be smart enough to raise children themselves. “The best letter I ever got was from a woman who said, ‘It sounds like you think I’m a sensible person,’ ” he told The New York Times in 1992. “That almost makes me weep.”

But when it came to politics, Spock preferred action to tears. A onetime Republican who helped organize opposition to nuclear weapons in the early ’60s, Spock became an influential critic of the Vietnam War, earning a rebuke from Vice President Spiro T. Agnew, who blamed Spock for the unruliness of the war-protest generation that took its politics into the streets in the ’60s. (“Well, at least nobody could accuse me of having brought up Spiro Agnew,” the pediatrician replied.) In 1972 he even ran for President, drawing nearly 80,000 votes as the nominee of the left-wing Peace Party. “His concern for children led him to political life,” says activist and clergyman William Sloane Coffin Jr., adding, “He looked so dignified. He looked like he wore three-piece underwear.” Though some critics attacked Spock for his outspoken entry into the political arena—and for his many arrests on civil disobedience charges—he insisted that the catastrophic threats posed by war and nuclear weapons made activism the only choice for a responsible doctor. “Pediatrics,” Spock declared in the 1992 edition of Baby and Child Care, “means politics.”

His own upbringing, ironically, had been conservative in nearly every respect. The eldest of six children born to Benjamin Ives Spock, a well-to-do New Haven railroad lawyer (whose Dutch ancestors spelled their name “Spaak”), and his homemaker wife, Mildred, Spock recalled his flinty mother as tyrannical and oppressive. “She made life miserable for her children,” he told PEOPLE in 1985. “But she loved babies, and she passed along that feeling to me.”

After prepping at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., Spock entered Yale University, where the athletic, 6’4″ English major rowed crew and went on to earn a gold medal at the 1924 Paris Olympics (the same games that featured the runners celebrated in the film Chariots of Fire). Earning his undergraduate degree in 1925, he spent two years at the Yale School of Medicine, then transferred to Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons, where he graduated at the head of his class in 1929. By that time he had married Jane Cheney, who was an entering Bryn Mawr college student when he first met her at a regatta in 1923, and who became the mother of his sons Michael, now 65, an educational consultant in Chicago, and John, 53, an architect in Los Angeles.

Although his New York pediatrics office at first floundered with the baby bust of the ’30s, Spock eventually built a thriving practice while also teaching part-time at Cornell University Medical College. Approached in 1941 by Pocket Books to write what the publisher thought would be a small parenting manual, Spock crafted the text over the next three years—often in collaboration with Jane, who later felt she never received adequate credit for her work, according to Thomas Maier, author of the forthcoming biography Dr. Spock: An American Life. After Spock’s World War II naval service, the baby book was finally born. The 25-cent paperback edition not only became America’s child-rearing bible, it eventually exerted such vast and lasting influence that in 1997 LIFE magazine called him one of “the century’s great cultural liberators,” along with Freud, philosopher John Dewey, Elvis and the Beatles.

Perfectly timed, as it turned out, to coincide with the postwar baby boom, Spock’s guide proved an instant hit, selling 750,000 copies in its first year alone. The tweedy and increasingly media-savvy Spock seemed a perfect father figure for young, middle-class families, and he built on his success to publish a series of authoritative volumes bearing such titles as Caring for Your Disabled Child and A Teenager’s Guide to Life and Love. Yet if the calm, reassuring doctor—who also wrote magazine columns for many years—seemed to have the solutions to so many dilemmas faced by his readers, he found himself beset by emotional turmoil in his own family. Jane was hospitalized frequently for paranoid schizophrenia, exacerbated by alcoholism. Later, in 1983, Spock was devastated by the suicide of his 22-year-old grandson Peter. “Ben was a starchy Yankee from Connecticut,” says biographer Maier. “He was the friend you turn to in the middle of the night, but it was very hard for him to talk about his own family problems.”

Spock’s first marriage lasted nearly 50 years, but in 1976, a year after meeting Mary Morgan, a former Arkansas schoolteacher 40 years his junior, he divorced Jane to marry her. A staunch feminist and advocate of health food and meditation, Morgan not only encouraged Spock’s continuing political activism but also inspired Spock to begin psychotherapy and take up meditation, yoga and an ascetic vegetarian diet.

When they weren’t working on securing their emotional lives, the couple enjoyed spending time on their boats in Camden, Maine, and Tortola, in the British Virgin Islands. According to writer and family friend Judith Viorst, Spock the octogenarian made few concessions to age. “Oh, he was a terrific dancer,” she says. “And he loved to dance.” Even into his 80s he remained an avid rower, once finishing a 2½-hour race against younger oarsmen in the West Indies.

By this January, though, Spock was clearly in decline, though he continued to collaborate with Dr. Steven J. Parker, a noted pediatrician at Boston Medical Center, on the seventh edition of his famous baby guide, to appear in bookstores this May. New sections pay increasing attention to gay and lesbian parents, plant-based diets, the Internet and other topics undreamed of in 1946. Determined to keep her husband in the comfortable home they had rented just north of San Diego, Morgan had appealed recently to friends and admirers to help fund the treatments and therapies—many not covered by Medicare or insurance—that were costing about $16,000 a month. By that time, much of Spock’s wealth had gone for legal expenses, his divorce settlement and his generous support of social causes. “He lived out his last years with dignity, compassion and love for the 50 million people out there he helped take care of,” says Morgan.

“The good things you do in this world outlast you,” Spock once said. “When someone says to me, ‘You helped me raise two fine children,’ that’s plenty for me. I can die in peace.”

PETER AMES CARLIN

RON ARIAS in La Jolla, LIZ McNEIL in New York City and bureau reports

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