Bill Hansen was a fierce competitor on a horse, on a tennis court or in corporate executive suites.
Hansen, a self-made man who didn't finish college but rose to the top of the retail industry in Southern California as president and CEO of Buffums, a chain of department stores headquartered in Long Beach, died Wednesday. He was 91.
Marka Hansen, one of Hansen's six daughters, said her father was a tough competitor who didn't like to lose no matter what - but that he also had "a very tender heart for people less fortunate."
That description was echoed by friends and community leaders who knew Hansen as a man who had a major impact on the department store industry, Downtown Long Beach and several nonprofit organizations in Long Beach.
Jim Hankla, former Long Beach city manager, remembered Hansen as the major force behind construction of a new mall to replace deteriorating stores on Pine Avenue in the early 1980s.
"Bill believed so strongly in improving the downtown he threatened to take Buffums out of Long Beach if the mall wasn't built," Hankla said. "That got it done."
Hankla said Hansen was a tough negotiator, "But he was very fair, and you always knew where he stood. His word was his bond," he said.
Freda Hinsche Otto remembered Hansen as one of the founding members (along with Whitey Littlefield and Harry Newman, Jr.) of Cedar House, a nonprofit organization created in 1974 to help prevent child abuse. Otto was the first executive director of Cedar House, which has since merged with Serra House to become For the Child.
"Bill was a wonderful man who wanted to help these abused children and their families," Otto said.
John Hunt, a Buffums employee who worked with Hansen for more than 20 years, said Hansen "was the kind of boss who was always open to listening to you, but once he made his mind up, and he was a decisive person, he would give you something to do and he expected you to do it. No excuses. I learned a lot from him."
Hansen was a Yankee Doodle Dandy of Danish descent born on the Fourth of July, 1921, in La Junta, Colo. His parents, Danish immigrants, moved the family - Hansen and his two brothers - to Seattle.
Daughter Marka said her father developed a tough skin growing up during the Depression and having a mother who may have invented tough love.
In his early years, Hansen worked as a butcher, a cowboy on a ranch in Montana and took assorted other jobs to help the family. He served in the Navy on a minesweeper during World War II.
"He didn't see his first daughter until she was 2 years old because of the war," his daughter said.
"And then when the war ended, he lived in a house with a wife, six daughters and his mother-in-law. That would make you tough, too," she said with a laugh. "He disciplined us, but I give him credit for teaching us a strong work ethic."
Hansen slowly was drawn to jobs in the fashion and service-oriented industry. He was president of Garfinkel's, a department and specialty store operation in Washington, D.C., before being named president of Buffums in 1970 and CEO in 1973.
"He made Buffums bigger and better," Hunt said.
Buffums was started in Long Beach in 1904 by brothers Charles and Edwin Buffum. The chain eventually grew to become a powerhouse with 16 stores throughout Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties until it closed in 1990.
Hansen was instrumental in working to improve Downtown Long Beach. In 1974, he described the area as "near dead."
"It's really depressing to see it now compared to when I first came here in 1955 and it was booming," he once said. "The issue then was improving parking. Some things never change."
Hansen served 15 years as Buffums' president before moving on to other projects with the company that bought Buffums.
I first met Hansen back in the early 1980s on a not-so-pleasant occasion. The Press-Telegram has just published a story on credit card debt. The photo illustration showed someone cutting a Buffums credit card in half.
Hansen was furious and ordered Buffums advertising pulled from the newspaper. I was managing editor then and went to see Hansen to explain how the photo illustration happened, that it was not malicious.
"How could anyone be so stupid?" he bellowed at me. Later, he calmed down and restored Buffums' advertising in the Press-Telegram.
On a more pleasant note, my wife and I are season ticket holders for the Long Beach Pops concerts with four other couples, including Bill and Kathy Hansen, who runs her own financial planning firm. Bill had been having serious health issues and was using a wheelchair. I sat next to him at the last Pops concert at the Long Beach Arena Feb. 9. He was in his usual good spirits as we talked about politics and the state of the city.
Unfortunately, he took a turn for the worse earlier last week. Bill was struggling last Tuesday night so Kathy tried to cheer him up.
"You know how he loved his Dewars scotch and soda," she told me. "He was not able to swallow, but I fixed him one. I took a spoon and put a few drops in his mouth, and he moved his tongue around. He grimaced a bit. I gave him another taste. Then he took all of his energy and said to me, `That was the worst chicken soup I ever had. All you have to do is put the chicken in the pot and boil it!"'
I'm sure Bill is up there now telling that story to anyone who will listen and laughing about it.
He is survived by his wife, four of his six daughters, nine grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. Services will be private.