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Peter Spang, former Historic Deerfield curator and keeper of the town’s history, dies at 85

Mr. Spang, at the Architectural Barn at Historic Deerfield.
Mr. Spang, at the Architectural Barn at Historic Deerfield.Historic Deerfield, Inc.

A curator who treated all of Deerfield as a museum to be carefully tended, Peter Spang once said that “if the story isn’t with the items, the items have no meaning.”

As the founding curator and first professional staffer hired by Historic Deerfield, and then as a volunteer for more than 30 years after retiring, he collected stories that shed light on artifacts from his adopted town’s past, and in the process his endless efforts became part of the community’s history.

“He really loved gathering things, and that was a big part of his personality,” said his friend Donald R. Friary, who is director emeritus of Historic Deerfield.

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Along with collecting items, Mr. Spang “also gathered information. He was full of information and very anxious to tell people about it,” Friary added. “He always had a story and he loved Deerfield. He always wanted to tell people about Deerfield.”

A mentor to curators and historians alike, Mr. Spang died in his sleep in his Beverly home May 7. He was 85 and had undergone surgeries for a broken hip, but had appeared well to family and friends — telling those close to him that he planned to catch up on his correspondence while convalescing.

True to his lifelong immersion in history, Mr. Spang corresponded through traditional mail, never on a computer. And he reused printed material to avoid adding to the world’s waste, carefully penning messages on the edge of newspaper clippings, on the backs of cards, on the unused portions of junk mail.

“I don’t think I ever got a letter from Uncle Peter that was on a fresh piece of paper,” said his niece Charlotte of Seattle. “He was a great recycler.”

Mr. Spang thought nothing should be discarded lightly, and certainly not anything that added to the understanding of Deerfield’s history.

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“Peter was first and foremost a steward of his adopted town,” Philip Zea, president of Historic Deerfield, wrote in a message that is posted on the organization’s website. “He valued tradition, collectors, and collecting anything.”

Some of what he collected is housed in the Joseph Peter Spang III Rare Book Room at the Memorial Libraries operated by Historic Deerfield and Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association, Zea added, noting that Mr. Spang was particularly fond of “ocean liner memorabilia and ancient architectural pattern books.”

Mr. Spang “has been the institutional memory of Historic Deerfield, and also for whole village of Deerfield and the surrounding area,” said Friary, who also is president of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts.

“He also had a great memory for objects that ought to be in the Historic Deerfield collection,” Friary added. “He’d keep track of those things, and would remind me from time that someone in New Jersey had a piece, and that we ought to go and visit and admire it. Peter and I would go on excursions to pick things up.”

With his charm and abiding interest in historic objects, Mr. Spang often persuaded owners to donate items to Historic Deerfield.

Over the years, he passed along his knowledge and enthusiasm to participants in the organization’s summer fellowship program.

“Peter mentored every one of our Historic Deerfield Summer Fellows from the 1950s to the 2010s – about 450 of us,” Zea wrote in his tribute.

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In addition, he said, Mr. Spang was a mentor to everyone on the organization’s staff, decade after decade.

“He was our institutional memory, our storyteller, and our supporter in any way possible,” Zea wrote, adding that “usually there is one, generation by generation, who brands what is important to remember. In Deerfield for the past 60 years that person is Peter Spang.”

The younger of two brothers, Joseph Peter Spang III was born in Chicago on May 11, 1934, a son of Joseph P. Spang Jr. and Gwendolen Green.

His father served as president of Gillette Co. after the family moved to Greater Boston. Mr. Spang, who grew up in Brookline and then Milton, was only a few months old when his mother died. He was raised by his father and an aunt.

After graduating from Brooks School in North Andover, Mr. Spang studied history at Harvard College, from which he graduated in 1956 with a bachelor’s degree.

“The first three years after graduation were spent studying art, architecture, and decorative arts in England and in this country,” he wrote in 1981 for the 25th anniversary report of his Harvard class.

And then, he added, “I moved to the country and stayed there.”

Mr. Spang had “learned that Helen and Henry Flynt were seeking a fledgling curator to assist them in managing their growing collection at Deerfield,” Friary wrote in a tribute.

For years, Mr. Spang was Historic Deerfield’s only professional staff member as his title changed from assistant curator to associate curator to curator.

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He was associated with several other organizations, including the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

By his understated telling in class reports, he led a “relatively uneventful life in this bucolic town.” Several years ago, he began renting a cottage at a Beverly senior living community, where he stayed during winter months.

And though he retired in 1986, he remained active on boards and continued his Deerfield research. He also was a key part of the family of his brother, Thomas, who died in 2009.

“He had this amazing ability to connect with any generation about any topic that would be of interest to them — not necessarily to him, but to them,” said his niece Vanessa of San Francisco.

“He had this amazing brain. I swear he never forgot anything,” she added.

A great-nephew “used to call him Uncle Google, and Uncle Peter didn’t know how to Google anything,” Vanessa said. “He was our Google on two legs.”

Routines meant much to Mr. Spang, who “had the same thing for breakfast every day: a cup of Earl Grey tea, buttered toast, and marmalade,” Charlotte recalled.

He loved to swim and made annual summer visits to the family home in Manchester-by-the-Sea.

“We’ll have a lot to talk about forever about Uncle Peter because he was such a character in our lives,” Charlotte said.

A service will be announced for Mr. Spang, who never married and leaves no immediate survivors.

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Though he was in his mid-80s and recuperating from surgery, his death in his sleep surprised those who knew him well.

“He was never sick a day in his life,” Vanessa said.

After he fell in December and underwent surgeries, “he said, ‘For somebody who’s never been sick, breaking my hip couldn’t have happened at a better time. I can catch up on my correspondence,’ " Vanessa recalled. “And that was Uncle Peter. He would find the lemonade in whatever lemons he came across.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.