Local Obituaries

From sandwich seller to billionaire developer, Alex Spanos lived rags-to-riches story

A look at the long life of billionaire real estate developer and philanthropist Alex G. Spanos

The Los Angeles Chargers announced owner Alex Spanos died Tuesday morning at age 95. The Stockton-born real estate developer and billionaire donated to sports and non-sports related developments throughout California.
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The Los Angeles Chargers announced owner Alex Spanos died Tuesday morning at age 95. The Stockton-born real estate developer and billionaire donated to sports and non-sports related developments throughout California.

Alex G. Spanos, a self-made Stockton real estate mogul who parlayed a lunch wagon into a billion-dollar fortune and became a prominent leader in business, sports and philanthropy, has died at the age of 95.

In 2008, Mr. Spanos had announced in a public letter that he had dementia.

A son of Greek immigrants who ran a bakery, Mr. Spanos lived a classic rags-to-riches story. He propelled himself with a strong work ethic and sharp business instincts that made him a billionaire developer and owner of the San Diego Chargers football team.

He started out selling sandwiches from the back of an old truck to migrant farm workers in the Central Valley. He rose to be a tycoon who traveled coast-to-coast on a fleet of private jets inspecting his business projects and hobnobbing with politicians, professional athletes and Hollywood celebrities.

“This is a far cry from those bakery days,” he told the Associated Press in 1984, recalling his childhood. “I think it’s so important for people not to forget their past, never forget where they came from. I love to talk about my past, because it wasn’t easy.”

Mr. Spanos made his fortune as one of the biggest developers of apartment complexes in the United States. Started in 1960, A.G. Spanos Cos. grew into a business empire with 10 subsidiaries and built more than 120,000 apartments in states from California to Florida. The Stockton-based operation also develops commercial properties and master-planned communities.

He was widely known as owner of the San Diego Chargers, which he bought in 1984. He was actively involved in running the National Football League franchise during the early years and fired four coaches. He eventually turned the operation over to his son Dean and spent $8 million on personnel that led the Chargers to their first Super Bowl in 1995.

“When I was a kid, we never had a chance to get involved in sports because we worked all the time,” he told The Bee in 2000. “I’ve always loved football, and it was a dream of mine to own my own football team. I had the opportunity, I could afford it, and I went out and bought the team.”

Mr. Spanos’ greatest influence, however, was philanthropic. His titled his autobiography “Sharing the Wealth” and gave millions of dollars of his own money to charities, churches, educational institutions, hospitals, and civic and athletic organizations.

He supported local community programs and disaster relief programs worldwide. He donated generously to Greek cultural and religious groups and was a major contributor to Republican politicians - including Arnold Schwarzenegger and George W. Bush - and was one of the top five GOP donors in 2004.

Much of his largesse was showered on Stockton, San Diego and Sacramento, where he developed apartments and commercial buildings on Howe Avenue just north of Fair Oaks Boulevard. He also supported schools and universities in California and Nevada, including California State University, Sacramento, and University of the Pacific.

As one of Sacramento State’s top benefactors, Mr. Spanos spent more than $1 million to upgrade Hornet Stadium. The track facility improvements were credited with luring the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials to Sacramento in 2000 and 2004.

In addition, he pledged $10 million – the school’s largest donation ever – for a new arena and recreation center. Along with Hornet Stadium, the facilities became part of the sprawling Alex G. Spanos Sports Complex.

After undergoing heart surgery at Mercy General Hospital, he pledged $15 million in 2001 to help pay for construction of a cardiac center to be named for him at the hospital.

“Sacramento is like my second home,” he told The Bee in 2004.

Born Sept. 28, 1923, Alexander Gus Spanos was one of six children raised by Eva and Constantino “Gus” Spanos. By 8, he was rising before dawn every day to work in his father’s lunch counter and bakery in Stockton’s old skid row district before going to school.

“My father was very, very strict,” he said in 1980. “He was a tyrant. He believed in the ‘old rule.’ All he did his whole life was work, so he expected his kids to do the same.”

Mr. Spanos served as a B-29 gunner in the Army Air Corps during World War II and returned home to finish his education at what was then College of the Pacific. He lettered in swimming and diving but left college after two years. With a wife and family to support, he worked in his father’s bakery until deciding in 1951 to venture out on his own.

He borrowed $800 to buy a used panel truck and started a catering business. Driving across the fields of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, he sold sandwiches made by his wife, Faye, to Mexican farm workers. Working 16 hours a day, seven days a week, he earned more in six months than he had in three years at his father’s bakery.

Recognizing opportunity in the postwar farm labor program that brought hundreds of thousands of Mexicans to work in the United States, he opened a housing camp for migrants on an abandoned military airfield leased from San Joaquin County. By the late 1950s, he began investing in real estate and soon had enough money to go into the construction business.

Mr. Spanos was inducted into the California Building Industry Hall of Fame in 2005. He eventually handed over the reins of A.G. Spanos Cos. to his sons, Dean, who is chairman and CEO, and Michael, who is president. His two daughters, Dea Spanos Berberian and Alexis Spanos Ruhl, are board members.

Despite his wealth, Mr. Spanos was an unpretentious man who was proud of his humble roots. He lived his whole life in Stockton and devoted himself to family, business and community.

He enjoyed dancing and was an avid golfer who played as a top amateur during the 1950s. For many years, he played golf and performed a song-and-dance act with entertainer Bob Hope, a close friend, to raise money for charities.

Widely honored for his philanthropy, he was recognized with the naming of Alex G. Spanos Center at UOP in Stockton, the Alex G. Spanos Training center at University of California, San Diego, and the Alex G. Spanos Stadium at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo.

He is survived by his four children.

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