The incredible story of Middletown’s beloved ‘Tank,’ one of its most colorful characters of recent decades

Phillip “Tank” Spangler, 82, is a resident at Hospice of Butler & Warren Counties and hopes to move into a retirement center this week. RICK McCRABB/STAFF

You’ve probably never heard of Phillip Spangler, even if you were his classmate at Middletown High School, his co-worker at Armco or victim of his pool hall hustle.

He’s best known as Tank, a nickname he earned while playing football at MHS.

“It stuck forever,” the 82-year-old said. “That name was there. There was nothing I could do about it, but live with it.”

MORE McCRABB: ‘Pizza?’: The story of Butler County’s iconic Richards Pizza as its founder tuns 90

It’s important for any community to remember those who helped build and thread it together, the colorful characters who pass through our lives. There are few more colorful than Tank.

Spangler, who carried 230 pounds on his 5-foot-10 frame in high school, was an offensive lineman for the Middies, and during a game, he had a violent collision with a Dayton Dunbar defensive lineman. His face and jersey bloodied, Spangler jogged to the sidelines only to be told by legendary Middletown Coach Glenn “Tiger” Ellison to get back on the field.

The medical staff intervened and Spangler was pulled out of the game and evaluated at Middletown Hospital. That play made him a Middie legend. Because of that tenacity, Spangler’s teammate and good friend, Bobby Womack, started calling him “Tank.”

“Like a bulldozer moving forward,” he said when asked to describe a tank.

Even today, 64 years later, it’s the name that follows him like a shadow.

Spangler grew up in Corbin, Ky., and had quite a mischievous childhood. He was raised on the “rough” streets of Corbin, he said.

“It was different back then,” he said.

He was a pool hustler, never steered away from a fist fight and once had a business dispute with Col. Harland Sanders.

Yes, that Col. Sanders.

Spangler delivered the Louisville Courier and he couldn’t get in touch with Sanders about his bill. So he tossed the newspaper in the bushes as a protest. Sanders called the newspaper office and complained, and Spangler was told to return and improve his delivery service. Spangler was greeted by Sanders, who was standing on his front porch.

MORE McCRABB: McCrabb: A new emotional gift tries to comfort organ donor families in Middletown

Spangler threw the newspaper on the roof and left. Take that, Mr. KFC.

He returned to the office and was told he was fired, seconds before he quit.

After his father died in an auto accident in Indiana, the Spangler family moved to Middletown where his mom remarried. Spangler packed his adolescent antics, too.

In the 1950s, the great pool player Willie Mosconi, who won 15 World Championships, gave an exhibition at Sports Bowl on South Main Street in Middletown. Spangler challenged Mosconi because, well, when they call you Tank, you don’t back down.

Spangler, who called himself “one of the best” pool players in town, sank several balls, then missed. Mosconi told the kid to sit down. He made 135 straights balls.

“Glad I sat down,” Spangler said with a smile. “Everybody who tried to beat him got slaughtered.”

While in Middletown, Spangler said he did lots of “crazy stuff.” When asked to tell a story or two, he said: “I might get put in jail.”

Then he said one time him and several buddies went to Clear Lake in Indiana, jumped on a docked pontoon boat, drove to the middle of the lake and drank a few beers. Then they returned the boat without getting caught.

“We did things like that,” he admitted. “Just boys being boys. We did have a lot of fun.”

MORE McCRABB: McCrabb: Legendary Middletown artist went from winning ‘little prize’ to a beautiful career

As a student at MHS, Spangler said one of his male teachers was “really down on the United States.” Spangler confronted the teacher about his anti-America attitude, and when the conversation escalated, Spangler said, “Would you like to go outside?”

He was soon expelled. A few days later, he started his 37-year career at Armco. He eventually earned his high school diploma.

He worked at Armco from 1956 to 1993 and retired as the chairman of safety for the steelworkers’ union. When he retired, Armco presented him with the prestigious Armco Iron Man, an award he still cherishes today. It’s engraved: “In gratitude for the service to the safety & health of his fellow employees.”

MORE McCRABB: McCrabb: How one man’s passion created ‘Christmas in July’ for area Kentucky fans

He’s proud of his work at Armco and called it the “greatest steelmaker.” He was dedicated to safety “day and night,” he said.

Spangler adjusted his oxygen tube that he uses at Hospice of Butler & Warren Counties. He hopes to move into a West Chester retirement facility this week.

As he finished his breakfast, he mentioned his fascination with fighting.

“I didn’t win every battle,” he said. “But I fought. I didn’t want to be called ‘chicken.’”

No, Tank sounds much better.

In Other News