Spangler Mortuary is one of the city's oldest family-run businesses. And someday it could be run by a generation of Spanglers who have traveled the world, succeeded in show business and survived the Iraq War.
Starr, Nick, Jake and Joya Spangler aren't typical siblings. Starr, 22, is a former Dallas Cowboys cheerleader who won a million dollars in "The Amazing Race" TV show last year. Her partner in that race was her brother Nick, 23, who currently plays a lead role in the world's longest-running musical, "The Fantasticks." Jake, 29, is on his way to a job at the Pentagon after serving as an Army captain in Iraq. And Joya, 18, is a promising actress who has been accepted into five of the East Coast's top acting schools.
Their father, Jim Spangler, says all of his kids have expressed an interest in running the mortuary business, which has been in the family -- with its prominent Spanish-style building at 799 Castro Street since 1934. Starr has already decided that New York isn't for her, Jim said, and may be returning soon.
Jim is a quiet and modest funeral director who dresses every day in a suit and tie. He said neither he nor his wife Caroline ever showed a propensity for the military, let alone acting.
While it's not quite show business, over the years the Spangler family was often in the spotlight in Mountain View. Jim's grandfather, Marty Sr., served long terms on the Mountain View City Council in the 1940s and '50s and on the county Board of Supervisors in the 1960s. Jim's father, Marty Jr., served on the Mountain View-Los Altos High School and El Camino Hospital district boards. Jim has been president of the Chamber of Commerce and the Rotary Club.
From show business to funeral business
It was December of last year when season 13 of "The Amazing Race" ended in a victory for Nick and Starr Spangler. Before it was over the two had traveled 30,000 miles in 23 countries and won several challenges, including painting a rickshaw faster than other contestants in New Delhi and eating a dish of sheep's
backside in Kazakhstan. At one point the two wore camouflage clothing, telling the show's host that it was in honor of their brother who was serving in Iraq at the time.
Nick and Starr were close friends by the end of the show, and the two now live together in New York.
Eight times a week, Nick plays Matt, the young lover in "The Fantasticks," a musical playing at the Jerry Orbach Theatre in New York. He's come a long way since starting his career playing a munchkin in a local youth theater production of "The Wizard of Oz."
Show business and the mortuary business overlap in the HBO television show "Six Feet Under," and Jim says the show's depiction "wasn't too far from reality -- the situations you run into can be really strange."
For example, not long after Jim took over the business in 1989, a woman shot and killed her husband, and the woman he was having an affair with, before turning the gun on herself. All three families called Spangler Mortuary, and Jim handled the arrangements for all three funerals.
About three times a week, Jim answers the phone in the middle of the night because someone died and a family needs his help to make the arrangements.
"It's a 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week job," Jim says.
Jim found it particularly difficult to arrange funerals for local soldiers who were killed in Iraq while his son was still stationed there. He says there have been three such funerals in Los Altos and Mountain View since the Iraq War started.
A family-operated mortuary is a rare thing today, especially in California, Jim says. To stay competitive, the business has expanded to include mortuaries in Los Altos, Sunnyvale and Menlo Park. It's also the only mortuary around with a crematorium (located in Sunnyvale), which was purchased from a previous owner who wanted it to go a family-run business.
Between all four mortuaries, the business serves 750 families a year and "each family needs something different," Jim explained. His grandparents used to serve 80 to 100 families a year with only one staff member. Now the four mortuaries have 10 staff altogether.
The Castro Street mortuary is a historic building, right down to the sign on the front door with its six-digit phone number from 1934: "If no answer, call Y.O. 7-5846." It has a chapel, a reception area, offices and embalming rooms.
Above the daily operations is the two-bedroom living quarters where Jim's parents once lived. It's currently being renovated so Jim and his wife can move in and sell their large home in Los Altos, which is no longer necessary with all the kids gone. Jim says he and Caroline, who helps run the business, like the downtown atmosphere.
"You can't beat the commute," he says.
Inspired by elders
During his days as a student at Stanford, Jim says, he was too embarrassed to admit he was going to be a funeral director. Instead he told fellow students that he was going to become the mortuary's "economic development officer."
Why would his high-flying kids want to be in such a business? Jim laughs and says it's for the same reason he was interested in the business from a young age: he looked up to his father and grandfather as respected members of the community. He thinks his kids do the same.
"There's a lot of family pride in it too," he says. "Instead of saying, 'I've heard of that company,' people say, 'I've heard of your family.'"
And there may also be something comforting and empowering about knowing that the family business is waiting for you.
"They've been given the opportunity to take those risks knowing that if it doesn't work out, 'I can come back and work with the family and I'd be happy,'" Jim says of his kids. "You might as well reach for what you can, and that is what they are all doing."