NEW YORK — William D. “Bill” Modell, chairman of Modell’s Sporting Goods, who led the growth of his family-owned sporting goods chain from four stores to 136 full-line units, died of prostate cancer Thursday at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. He was 86.
Born in Brooklyn’s Manhattan Beach section, Modell began his retailing career at the age of nine when he sold produce door-to-door in his neighborhood. He attended Peekskill Military Academy and New York University.
In 1946, Modell returned from serving with the Army’s Ninth Air Corps during World War II, and joined the family business. He realized that many returning veterans, who were moving to the suburbs and building families, needed a place to shop. So he developed Modell’s Shoppers World on Long Island.
Modell also worked with his father, Henry, to establish the Modell Veterans Training Center in lower Manhattan. The center helped thousands of unskilled or unemployed veterans prepare for retailing careers.
The business was founded in 1889 by Bill Modell’s grandfather, Morris A. Modell, who began selling clothes to sailors on shore leave. Morris A. Modell established a store on Cortlandt Street in lower Manhattan that supplied outfits for Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War. All seven of his sons worked there. One son, Henry, became the company’s president in 1920 and chairman in 1937, and the firm became known as Henry Modell Co. The retailer, which sold Army surplus merchandise after World War I, recorded major growth during the Great Depression because of its discount prices.
In 1955, Bill Modell launched an aggressive expansion of the family business, which ultimately grew to 136 full-line stores in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and Washington.
By 1991, the Modells began a major renovation of the chain’s stores and renamed the company Modell’s Sporting Goods. Modell’s purchased 15 stores from the bankrupt Herman’s chain in 1996.
In addition to his role at the sporting goods chain, Modell was a philanthropist and active in civic affairs. He saw the potential of developing Long Island City and founded the Long Island City Business Development Corp., spearheading the movement to transform Long Island City into a central business district.
Modell was appointed a member of the Negotiating Committee for the Panama Canal Treaty under President Jimmy Carter. He was New York City’s Commissioner of Public Affairs under former Mayor Abraham Beame, as well as a founding patron of the Metropolitan Opera House and Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts and a member of the Friar’s Club.
For 40 years, Modell worked to find a cure for Crohn’s disease, which took his son Michael’s life in 2001. He was national co-founder of the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation of America and founder of CCFA’s Long Island chapter and the Gold Coast chapter, raising millions of dollars for medical research. He was a recipient of the Gilda’s Club Magic Award and CCFA’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
Modell is survived by his wife, Shelby; a son, Mitchell, chief executive officer of Modell’s; a daughter, Leslie; a sister, Doris Tipograph, and nine grandchildren.
Funeral services will begin at 11 a.m. Sunday at Temple Emanu-El in Manhattan.