Emil John Spanner knew suffering. Setbacks, tragedy and adversity were constant companions throughout nearly eight decades of life.

His brother was only 19 when he died in a car accident. Spanner struggled for years with alcoholism before finding sobriety. He beat skin cancer, survived an aneurysm and dealt with an aggressive form of multiple sclerosis that made it difficult for him to walk.

“He really was in a lot of pain all the time, but he pushed through it,” said his daughter, Elizabeth Spanner of Rochester. 

A debilitating stroke a few years ago forced the family’s hand to place him in a nursing home. He never fully recovered, but his colorful personality and keen sense of humor kept the nursing home staff in stitches.

“The staff will tell me, ‘We loved your dad. He was so funny,’” Elizabeth said. “He was always cracking up with them.”

The one foe Emil Spanner couldn’t push through was COVID-19. He died from the disease on June 7, 2020. He was 77. Elizabeth was able to visit him at the end and play music for him. She put the phone next to his ear so her brother could also say goodbye.

“He was on so much morphine at the end,” said Elizabeth, who was her father’s health care proxy and made the difficult decision to place him in palliative care rather than have him on a ventilator in his final weeks of life.

“We had him cremated. Right now, he’s on my mantel,” she said.

Emil Spanner at about age 35.
Emil Spanner at about age 35.

Born Nov. 16, 1942, in Newark, New Jersey, Emil John Spanner never really knew his father.

“He had a rough life. It wasn’t easy for him,” Elizabeth said. “But my dad always kept going. He was very independent.”

He never graduated from college, but Emil Spanner had a keen sense for business and a tireless work ethic. He became a successful middle manager in a high-technology company, and spent years working and living overseas in South Korea and Belgium. As a child, Elizabeth Spanner remembers living in an English-speaking enclave in Brussels, and visiting Austria with her parents.

“He was really passionate about business and being a good provider,” she said. “He was always a very hard worker. He had a beautiful home. He really took pride in gardening, making sure his lawn was perfect.”

Emil Spanner, his wife and their three children settled in Dunstable, located in central Massachusetts.  They built their dream home on a couple of acres that included a horse barn.

“My dad built the barn so I could have my dream of having horses,” Elizabeth said. “It was a beautiful place to grow up.”

The marriage, however, ended in divorce. Emil Spanner moved to Florida, where he lived for more than 30 years. His daughter and some friends helped move him to New Bedford.

Collage of New Bedford people who died in COVID pandemic featured in memorial.

We remember you.

As the city emerges from the long siege of COVID-19, we pause to take stock of what – and whom – we’ve lost. Please help build this community memorial by adding a tribute to your loved one.

Living by himself in an apartment, Emil Spanner maintained his passions for cars, photography, gardening and music. He could often be heard humming the tunes of his favorite composers.

“He loved music. That was the biggest thing in his life,” Elizabeth said. “The clarinet was his favorite. He was into jazz and went to New Orleans at one point. He loved Gershwin and the Beatles.”

Emil Spanner loved a good political debate and having spiritual discussions with his daughter and a Jehovah’s Witness friend who would read the Bible with him. He and Elizabeth often read the same books and discussed them over the telephone.

The last thing Emil would ever tell his daughter was, “OK, kiddo,” when she talked to him while he was in the emergency room, just before his oxygen levels dropped and he lost consciousness. 

“I miss him terribly,” Elizabeth said. “I’m also glad he’s not suffering anymore.”

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