My Mentor George Spannenberg

Recently several people have asked if I had a mentor when I started with pigeons. As it turns out, the word “mentor” is an understatement. You see, I met a great person who helped me not only by teaching me about birds, but who also helped me set the course of the rest of my life. It started when I was about 14 years old. I saw a flock of pigeons circling a block away from where my parents and I had just moved, and as that flock grew tighter and landed, so did I --- in the back yard of George Spannenberg. Now I had racing pigeons in Germany from age 5 on, and came to this country at age 12. My first 2 years in Chicago I kept birds at a neighbor’s little shed, but it was not until my contact with George Spannenberg that racing pigeons became an important and serious part of my life.

I spent my high school years going over to George’s every evening at 6 p.m. like clockwork because that is when he would be at the loft for one hour to feed and take care of his birds. Actually, the loft was located at his parents’ home and his father was his official partner. In reality it was both his mother and father who enabled him to fly at the level he did. It was his mother who would make sure the birds were fed after a training toss, or that the youngsters were let out, or any other task that had to be done during the day when George would call her from work. And once his father retired he was able to take over some of the daytime routine. I remember George’s parents as 2 warm wonderful people; his mother was just a little sparkplug. They knew every bird. Many of the birds were named, such as the blue WF cock with the white bow tie on his neck. He was Bozo, after the clown that was on TV in those days.

In retrospect, it was those evenings I spent with George that became invaluable learning sessions for me, although at the time I did not consider them as such. I was reading everything I could get my hands on about pigeons in either German or English. I could not understand a pigeon flyer who did not have every pigeon book that was available or every magazine, but it was George who always put the finishing touches on everything for me.

For example, as we would take care of general maintenance at the loft, he would pick up a bird and say, “Now do you see this?” Or, “This is how I’m going to set this bird up.” He flew on the nest and everything in his loft was mentally preplanned. I still remember at the beginning of one season he casually told me that the bcwf hen would be his bird for the 400. By golly, several months later when she won the 400 and swept the board, I was just totally amazed. He never bragged to me or even mentioned that he had said the hen would be his bird two months earlier, but of course I remembered. It made me that much more determined to always plan ahead. When we would drive to the club each week to ship birds, he would not be talking about the birds in the baskets, but instead would be talking about the birds that were going next week.

Soon I was known as the kid with George Spannenberg. If a youngster that had strayed to a good loft needed to be picked up, he would take me along. If that loft housed an exceptional bird, he would ask the owner “Would you let the kid handle that bird?” (And perhaps the parents as well).

Many life lessons were learned on these excursions. One of them was when George took me to the loft of the then-legendary Casey Didier. He was using a double widowhood system with peepholes where the hens were in a section behind the widowhood cocks. We were in awe since Didier had paid off his house in 2 years flying his birds. But he had not flown well the last 5 or 6 years. During that visit, Mr. Didier made a very honest set of comments to me. He said, “Kid, I can see you are already a very good handler. Be careful and keep everything in perspective, like your friend George here. I personally let it get out of hand, and was very proud that I was one of the greatest handlers around. But you know, when I really got a big head as to how good I was I started selling my key pigeons for big money. I thought it was my methods that made me so great. It wasn’t. The birds’ performance went down. I focused so much on them that my trucking business went down. I had let things get out of balance and I let the birds take over my life. Your friend George has kept his perspective.”

George instilled another lesson in me early on. That is, you never water down the quality of your breeding loft or even your flying loft. In his loft, there were 15 nest boxes for the breeders and 22 nest boxes for the flyers. He never exceeded that number. If he wanted to put a bird in the breeding loft, another bird had to be moved out. In other words, there was never an expansion. In this way he controlled the quality of his stock loft. I did the same and for many years maintained a maximum of 12 pair of breeders and 18 pairs of flyers. George and I never kept any spare birds. If something happened to a bird, we just evened the numbers downward and the nest box would be closed for that season.

His loft, like any good loft, was established around an exceptional bird or two. George always emphasized to me that “If something happens to your exceptional breeder, you must have at least two exceptional children to take his place.” And they also had to be children from different matings. George defined an exceptional breeder as a bird that bred good pigeons with at least two different mates. This very strict and constant selection process was how his family of birds was developed and maintained. I now realize how fortunate I was to have had the opportunity to observe high quality birds right from the beginning.

And yet George never judged a pigeon show. You see, he didn’t care about the roundness of the head or the color of the eye, and certainly not how wide or overdone the back of the pigeon was. But he was known as a man who won races year after year with birds that were carefully cultivated.

I’d like to share facets of George’s life outside the pigeon sport. For me, George has always led by example. He has lived in a way where honesty and integrity are the norm, and not something special. His entire life has been one of great balance. In the pigeon world, he was Mr. Stability who would be on the convention committees, any auditing committees, etc. As part of his religious contributions, he was the treasurer for his congregation. His relationship with his own family, however, stands above all. I don’t think you can respect or honor a person more than when you see how they have supported, encouraged, and cultivated their children and grandchildren.

Through the years, George and his wife Stephanie have had a very full social life. For instance, there is the Couples Club that started when they first were married and has stayed together all their life. Then there was the poker night with the guys, also the annual fishing trip with the guys. Of course season tickets to the Bears and his love for the Cubs would be hard to beat by any standards. In fact, his birds had no choice but to enjoy all those games through radio broadcasts in the pigeon loft.

Early on I saw three little girls at his parents’ home and I must have telegraphed a look of surprise. His mother looked at me with a smile and commented, “Oh, you don’t know that George not only raises pigeons, but girls too”. It was those 3 little girls, along with his parents and wife, who inspired me as such a great family over the next many years.

As mentioned earlier, George’s birds were kept at his parents’ home in a two-story loft that was built specifically as a garage with an upstairs for the birds way before my time. However, George lived about 20 minutes further into the city. When his girls became high school age, he bought a house about a mile west of the loft location since the girls were going to attend Luther High North, the same parochial school I had attended earlier. When the Spannenberg girls came to Luther North, they created an impact. They were all bright, with the outgoing bubbly personalities that so typified their mother. They were involved in all aspects of that school: academically, socially, as cheerleaders, as athletes. George held a very responsible job in the accounting department where he worked. Yet it was a priority to make time for planning his family commitments, social life, special time for the girls, and fulfilling his many responsibilities in the church or pigeon club.

When the 3 girls, one by one, went off to college, George’s interest and participation continued. At this time the birds had to be retired, since his parents were not there to maintain the home loft any more. His commitment shifted more and more to his high-achieving daughters and their involvement at the universities. And then one by one, three successful, achieving sons-in-law joined the family. Now George had someone to accompany him to some of the ball games!

When these 3 young families took root in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, George and Steffie again picked up roots and bought a new home in the general vicinity of where their 3 young families had settled. So the next generation of this close family, the grandchildren of George and Steffie Spannenberg, have benefited from their grandparents’ attention through their high school years and on to college. The Spannenbergs still live in Arlington Heights IL, a suburb of Chicago, where they enjoy the well-earned dignity and respect of a wonderful family.