Obituary: George Arthur Fisher, Jr. and William Frederick Spengler

by Robert Wilson Hoge

I write this note with a heavy heart, to eulogize two friends of mine who passed away. Both were contemporaries of my parents, part of that great “World War II Generation”; they were two men whom I think of as my mentors. Both were among the many, including my own father, who were able to advance their educations following the war by means of their military service, under the terms of the GI Bill of Rights. They were men of remarkable abilities and accomplishments, and they were right there, centered in this country’s way of life, while at the same time being exceptionally attuned to the outer world, quietly serving, studying, and collecting coins and enriching the life experiences of people like me. They were my friends and companions and colleagues in numismatics, and I grieve their loss.

George Arthur Fisher, Jr., 1926-2005

A Connecticut native partly of Hungarian descent, George Fisher began his professional life right out of high school when, in the middle of World War II, he enlisted in the U.S. Army and started studying Chinese under the auspices of the University of Connecticut. Later transferring to the Army’s University of Chicago language-training program, George continued after the war with the study of Japanese, and after graduation was subsequently stationed in Japan, where his interest in and knowledge of Far Eastern collectibles commenced. Following his return to the United States, George continued in government service, monitoring and translating communications and publications out of Communist China for the China Desk of the National Security Agency. With his encyclopedic knowledge, George knew the correct standard forms of all regularly used Chinese characters, as well as both their simplified forms and their telegraphic code number equivalents. He was able to write in Chinese and Japanese characters of such calligraphic perfection that natives could not tell his script had been composed by a Westerner.

To get away from Washington, George left the NSA and toured the country a bit, for a time working in a printing establishment, where he gained an understanding of typesetting and copy editing. Then George capitalized on his prior years of government service and his love of our country’s environmental heritage to go to work for the National Park Service, where he eventually became planning director for the West, headquartered in Denver, Colorado. He also obtained a further academic degree in International Relations. From a profound knowledge of Japanese philately (he served for many years as editor of the Journal of the Japanese Philatelic Society), George moved increasingly into the field of traditional Chinese coinage, and eventually became, virtually without question, the foremost living American authority in this complex field.

Among numismatists, George is best known today for his Fisher’s Ding, or, Ding Fubao’s Catalog of Old Chinese Cast Coinage, Selectively Translated and Annotated (self-published in Littleton, Colorado, in 1990). This was his fully edited version of the classic Chinese reference Quan Zhi Ching Hua Lu (“A Catalog of Ancient Chinese Coins,” Shanghai, 1936) by Ding Fubao (or “Ting Fu-Pao,” in the older Wade-Giles transliteration system). In this comprehensive work, which has become a standard reference for students and collectors worldwide, George shared much of his wealth of knowledge, providing for the first time a convenient numbering system for the pages and coins and a translation of Ding’s Chinese text, as well as helpful indices, cross-references, and a survey of the modern Pinyin Chinese transliteration system. His personal collection was outstanding, and his understanding of all traditional Chinese coinage and the local geography of China and Japan was profound. An ANS member since 1997, George was a serious and studious collector who obtained and read all the principal publications in his areas of interest, monitoring numismatic research in China as intensely as he had once analyzed political and economic issues for the NSA.

George was a participant in the Society’s memorable Chinese Cast Coinage Conference in February 1998, to which I had the pleasure of traveling with him. His cheerful, whimsical outlook and unpretentious scholarship accompanied an amazing memory for detail; I remember him once explaining to me how he formed a mental image of whatever he wished to store away for future recall, never to be forgotten. George and I were friends for years. He had been one of my first “recruits” when I started the volunteer program of the American Numismatic Association’s Museum, and when he was able to take an early retirement from the Park Service, he began making the trek to Colorado Springs to assist on a regular basis; he even helped recruit other fine numismatic volunteers to join my program, FANAM (the Friends of the American Numismatic Association Museum, which was given this acronym partly with my friend Bill Spengler in mind, since it is the name of a small Indian gold coin). Many a time we would go off to find an inexpensive place for lunch on those days (the 29-cent special at Hamburger Stand was great while it lasted!), eventually settling on a routine—normally dining Chinese—and joined by likeminded companions for perennially enjoyable discourse.

In addition to his Chinese specialization, George had also had a strong interest in several other areas of numismatics. He collected pieces pertaining to any “George,” items from the year of his birth, items displaying barbed wire, coins from places he had visited in his travels (such as ancient cities of Turkey), and especially coins of the Holy Land.

George A. Fisher, Jr., died after a relatively short illness on March 18, 2005, from complications of pancreatic cancer, leaving behind his wife, Joyce, two daughters, and a son. It is hard to realize that he and his constant enthusiasm for life, learning, and numismatics are gone.

William Frederick Spengler, 1923-2005

A man of charm and erudition, always with a twinkle in his eye, Bill Spengler was an extraordinary numismatist. A graduate of the University of Wisconsin, in his home state, Bill had also attended Phillips Academy, in Andover, Massachusetts. His education was interrupted by World War II, when he enlisted in the U.S. Army and eventually found himself in the Signal Corps’ Security Agency, working on breaking Japanese codes. Obtaining his B.A. (Phi Beta Kappa) and M.A. degrees in political science and geography, as well as studying law, Bill went to work for the State Department, entering the U.S. Foreign Service, where he made his career.

Bill’s sagacity and considerable linguistic skills were put to good use in Thailand, Norway, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, where he served in various capacities as ambassadorial secretary, political counselor, and consul. He taught as professor of South Asian studies for the Foreign Service Institute, served as director of the International Visitor Program for the State Department, and also as deputy special assistant for world population matters to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Bill’s principal work focused on Pakistan and Afghanistan, and it was there that his historic connection with South Asian numismatics began.

The bazaars of Kabul and Peshawar in the 1960s were full of ancient and medieval coins, often being melted down for jewelry. Bill quickly began collecting and studying these relics, gaining a thorough mastery of the subject areas and building an outstanding, representative collection of numismatic materials relating to the entire subcontinent. In 1966, he joined the ANS, becoming a Fellow as well as a member of the Standing Committee on Oriental Coins in 1971. In 1976, he became a member of the new Standing Committee for Islamic and South Asian Coins and also for that of Greek Coins. Bill was the donor of 148 gifts to the ANS cabinet, including nearly two thousand specimens. His favorite series were probably the Indo-Bactrian and Indo-Greek and the early Muslim dynasties, but his deep knowledge extended to all the other time periods and regions.

As I recall, one time Bill modestly informed me that he thought his childhood dyslexia could have been a positive factor in his professional life, since it might have given him a certain predisposition for working with languages whose scripts read from right to left! I feel fortunate that Bill’s family maintained a home in Colorado Springs. This enabled me to get to know him through the American Numismatic Association, of which he was an active member. He also maintained his family’s connection to Wisconsin, and upon his retirement from government service, he returned to graduate school there to work on a doctorate in history, emphasizing his numismatic researches.

The author of many articles in his fields of interest, Bill is probably best known today as one of the coauthors of The Standard Guide to South Asian Coins and Paper Money Since 1556 AD, as well as for his work on the Turkoman Figural Bronze Coins and Their Iconography, coauthored with Wayne G. Sayles. But I shall always think of him as a friend, mentor, and gifted raconteur with a great sense of humor. He encouraged me in my participation in the International Partnerships Among Museums Program (sponsored by the American Association of Museums and the International Council of Museums), when I was selected to visit the National Museum of Pakistan as the first numismatic specialist to be involved with this professional exchange. I was the first IPAM designee to travel to that part of the world, and it was pleasant to encounter people in Pakistan who remembered Bill. In 1991, he and I roomed together when we attended the International Numismatic Congress in Brussels, and I looked forward to his company whenever we met. Bill had a way with words that was both sophisticated and clear.

As an occasional volunteer at the Museum of the American Numismatic Association, Bill often joined me and other numismatic helpers and friends for a weekly lunch filled with good fellowship, usually at a Chinese restaurant in honor of our long-distance commuter, the redoubtable George Fisher. Bill and George also taught classes on Oriental numismatics for us at the ANA’s annual Summer Seminars. William F. Spengler died of pancreatic cancer on November 8, 2005, leaving behind his wife of fifty-five years, Phyllis (“Phid”), two sons, a daughter, and four grandchildren. A delightful and distinguished man, he will be missed by all.