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Bill Spang, 97; adventurer sold steaks, houses, dolls

In his late years, Mr. Spang reveled in his enduring energy. skiing and sailing.

In his late years, Mr. Spang reveled in his enduring energy. skiing and sailing.

The first time Bill Spang went skiing, he rolled and tumbled down the headwall of New ­Hampshire’s Tuckerman Ravine. There was a race that day, and he wanted to ski the same slope as the experts.

After Mr. Spang’s first Harvard class reunion in 1941, a friend took him sailing for the first time. The next week, Mr. Spang bought his own 32-foot boat and began a lifetime of sailing that took him from the coast of Turkey to the islands of the Caribbean.

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And when the prefabricated housing industry first became popular in the United States, he moved his family to Europe to build a business there, though the venture never took off.

“He was an incredible risk-taker and adventurer,” said his daughter Annie of Hingham. “He didn’t pause. If something grabbed him, he followed that passion.”

Mr. Spang, who formerly was president of his cube steak manufacturing company in Needham, died of heart failure Jan. 2 in his Duxbury home. He was 97 and had told his children that he had never stopped loving the life he led.

Born in Marshfield, William F. Spang was the second of nine children in his father’s second marriage. As the oldest son, he knew early that someday he would lead the family’s meat processing business, which was successful thanks to a machine his father invented to tenderize cube steaks.

Mr. Spang graduated in 1934 from Thayer Academy in Braintree, where he was captain of the football team and was inducted into the school’s sports hall of fame.

He studied business at Harvard College and developed a fierce passion for the school’s culture and pride in its teams. A Harvard football season ticket-holder, he loved to take his son and daughters to tailgate at home games with his old Harvard buddies, said his son, Fritz of Philadelphia.

Upon Mr. Spang’s Harvard graduation in 1938, his father placed him in a slaughterhouse to learn the meat business.

“After about nine months, I emerged from this first stage of my career, bloody but unbowed,” Mr. Spang wrote in the 25th anniversary report of his Harvard class.

He began a short stint as a salesman, but quickly found he would be more effective on the management side.

“If you’ve ever tried to sell meat machinery through the medium of a Harvard accent to butchers who ran away from home at an early age, you’ll know how successful I was,” he noted in his Harvard report.

Drafted into the US Army in June 1941, Mr. Spang was discharged before the United States officially entered World War II so he could transform the processing plants into factories producing armaments.

He changed the motto to “From production of cube steaks to production for greater stakes,” his daughter said.

Mr. Sprang also served in the Navy near the end of the war, and after his father died in 1945, he ran the business for more than a decade before embarking on his own entrepreneurial ventures.

He met Anne Evans Hoyt on a blind date in 1948. On their second date, he asked her to marry him, and she said she was not yet ready. On their third date, he had a bout of cold feet and apologized for the offer. But on their fourth date, while visiting her parents, he told her father he was going to marry her, and he did that year.

Theirs was a marriage of complementary pursuits.

“In the winter, she likes to play bridge and I like to ski,” he wrote in the Harvard class report. “In the summer, she likes to play golf and I like to sail.”

Mr. Spang launched an import-export business that took him to Europe and led to unusual ­décor in the home. At one point, Fritz said, the Medfield house was filled with Spanish dolls his father had purchased and had nowhere else to store.

After the import-export business, Mr. Spang took over as president of a prefabricated housing company during the rapid expansion of suburbs.

Mr. Spang was not satisfied with the market in the United States because it was becoming flooded with competition, Fritz said, so he packed up the family and moved to Strasbourg, France, to set up his business there.

“The spirit of adventure was part of his business compass and really motivated him to make a go of it in Europe,” Fritz said.

The time in Europe was cut short when Mr. Spang’s wife, Anne, was diagnosed with cancer. Concerned about her medical treatment, Mr. Spang moved his family back to the United States, where he had more faith in health care, but Mrs. Spang died in 1966.

A commercial real estate broker after returning to Greater Boston, Mr. Spang also served on boards including those for the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary and Plimoth Plantation.

The later years of Mr. Spang’s life were made up of family dinners, trips around the world in his sloop, and smooth cuts down New England’s ski slopes. Mr. Spang chose to spend his money doing things, not buying them, his son said.

“He was kind of a typical Yankee in his lifestyle,” Fritz said. “He didn’t lavish himself in luxury.”

A service has been held for Mr. Spang, who in addition to his daughter Annie and son, Fritz, leaves three other daughters, Madeleine von Hemert of Providence, Rachel Spang-Lawton of Philadelphia, and Rebecca Thomas of Kailua-Kona, Hawaii; a sister, Virginia McManama of Belmont; a brother, Jack of San Francisco; and eight grandchildren.

The year before Mr. Spang died, he sailed to the Galapagos Islands, Fritz said, and in his late years seemed to revel in his enduring energy.

In his early 80s, Mr. Spang’s enthusiasm was apparent when he wrote his entry for the 60th anniversary report of his Harvard class.

“Still vertical! Enjoy visiting four daughters and one son spread between California and Budapest,” he wrote. “Sail almost anywhere, including across the Atlantic. Ski like mad. That’s about it.”

Todd Feathers can be reached at todd.feathers@globe.com.
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