John Spear, longtime retail professional with ‘huge personality,’ dies at 83
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News obituary'Everybody loved the guy'

John Spear, longtime retail professional with ‘huge personality,’ dies at 83

Kaufmann's executive and community stalwart

John Spear (Photo courtesy of the Spear family)
John Spear (Photo courtesy of the Spear family)

John Spear, a Kaufmann’s retail giant who spent eight story-filled decades living within a five-mile radius of Squirrel Hill, died Aug. 14, after a 17-year battle with kidney cancer. He was 83 and wrote his own obituary.

“In death, people come out of the woodwork, and everyone says nice things —people did that for my dad during his life,” Doug Spear, the youngest of Spear’s three sons, told the Chronicle. “Everybody loved the guy. He had such a huge personality and just had a way about him.”

A lifelong Pittsburgher, Spear was born Oct. 23, 1938, to Jacob and Else Spear, who ran Fashion Spear, a family retail business based in Braddock that eventually spread to several area malls.

He graduated from Taylor Allderdice High School in 1956, forming friendships he frequently revisited during the many class reunions he organized. Spear earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Pittsburgh in 1960 and served during his college years as president of Pi Lambda Phi fraternity.

Spear married the former Janet Elinor Cohen on May 6, 1962. They were together for 55 years, until her death in 2017.

“Their courtship began when Janet bought his ’53 Chevy for $200,” Spear wrote in the obituary he submitted to Ralph Schugar Chapel, Inc. “He then delivered snow tires to her house and asked her for a date. They went to LeMont and on the way home, he startled her by announcing that he would marry her. Soon thereafter, their love affair began.”

The couple raised three sons — Jeffrey, David and Doug, each of whom grew up to become a lawyer in different U.S. cities. Jeffrey Spear went to New York City and, in 1999, Doug Spear trekked to Atlanta; David Spear was the only son who stayed in Pittsburgh.

In 1980, after his time at the family business, Spear joined Kaufmann’s in Greensburg as store manager. In 1983, he was promoted downtown to become divisional merchandise manager of coats, furs and bridal. He later became a Kaufmann’s vice president and quadrupled the company’s fur business in one year, according to his obituary.

“His coat and fur auditorium sales and his flair for fashion provided much excitement to the downtown store as well as the branches,” Spear wrote in his obituary. “He was known for successful fur trunk shows in Kaufmann’s Pittsburgh branches and in Erie, Youngstown, Cleveland, Charleston and New York state locations.”

Upon his retirement from Kaufmann’s, Spear consulted for three years for the Millstein family, founders of Burlington Coat Factory.

Above all, though, Spear stayed active in his community and regularly attended services at Rodef Shalom Congregation.

“My parents volunteered from the moment I remembered,” Jeffrey Spear said. “They instilled in us that community service was essential.”

Spear was president of the Braddock Rotary Club (1978-80), a Rotarian (since 1964) and president of the Greater Braddock Chamber of Commerce (1972-74), where he negotiated the reopening of the Braddock schools after the Martin Luther King riots.

He also was president of the YouthSquad, which provided work to men following their release from jail. He also served as vice president of the Hebrew Free Loan Association, on whose board he served for 20 years.

The list of his credentials runs on: Forward Shady Housing Corp., Jewish Residential Services, Concordia Club, and the board of the Israel Heritage Room at the University of Pittsburgh in the Cathedral of Learning.

The man was tireless, his sons said, and his kidney cancer diagnosis, which led to several surgeries, did not slow him down.

“He always recovered,” David Spear told the Chronicle. “Even when the cancer came back, he wouldn’t miss a beat. He simply wouldn’t let it get him down.”

After his wife’s death, Spear reconnected with Marcia Gross, a former acquaintance, through Facebook — he loved social media and was great with evolving technology, his sons said — and she became a close companion in his later years.

Spear was a lifelong Pittsburgh sports fan, especially enjoying Pirates games and becoming a season ticket holder at the age of 16 at Forbes Field. (He was in right field when Bill Mazeroski hit his famous walk-off home run in the 1960 World Series. Doug Spear framed the tickets to the game.) He coached his sons’ teams for six years in the 14th Ward Little League and won two championships.

Also meaningful to Spear, as well as to his family and friends, were greeting cards, Doug Spear remembered. His father sent tons of cards — and spent lots of time at Target poring over the selection, looking for just the right one.

“He sent birthday cards to everyone and the more people appreciated it, the more he did it,” Doug Spear laughed. “It’s just an example of how invested he was in personal relationships. He did that on such a scale. It kept up a lot of relationships [and] it was one of the reasons he was so beloved.” PJC

Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.

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