This one’s a little personal…
One day in December, 1993 I received a piece of advice that would change my life forever.
I was a freshman at the University of Delaware, and after a semester of begging/writing whatever anyone would assign, the editors of the student newspaper, The Review, hired me on staff as an assistant sports editor.
After telling me the news, almost in an offhand way, the editor-in-chief, Jeff Pearlman, said one more thing.
“You should go see Bill Fleischman. He’s in Memorial Hall. He’s an adjunct professor. And he’s an editor and a sportswriter at the Philadelphia Daily News.”
With those words, I was out the door and making a mental note to myself to go see this Fleischman guy immediately.
Someone who works here, at little ole’ Delaware, is currently on staff at a major American newspaper? And I can just… walk up to his office and talk to him, and get writing advice?
Without knowing anything about him but what Jeff had told me, I was determined to make Bill Fleischman pay attention to me, and help me with this new writing thing I was so passionate about.
The next day, I went to find him at his office. He wasn’t there, but I saw his schedule posted and showed up a few days later when I knew he’d be around.
We chatted for about 20 minutes, and I was struck by how eager, how friendly, how knowledgeable this man seemed to be. He didn’t know me at all, had never read anything I’d written, and yet he was so kind and gracious.
That began a 25-year friendship between this wonderful, sharp, funny man and yours truly. A friendship that I treasured as much as any in my life, one that helped me through so many good times, and a few bad ones.
A friendship that sadly has ended in this world, because last Wednesday morning, after a year-long battle with cancer, Bill Fleischman died at age 80.
We knew it was coming; the last several months have been rough, and our phone conversations got shorter and shorter. I’d say over the past quarter-century the longest I ever went without speaking to my greatest mentor was six weeks.
I drove down to Delaware on Friday for the viewing, and the funeral on Saturday morning. I got to spend a few minutes with his rock, his wife of 57 years, Barb, and I got to meet Bill’s brother, his daughter and others he loved.
I renewed some acquaintances with people I hadn’t seen in years; chatted with some old friends and met some new ones. We sat and talked and laughed about this wonderful human being we all knew and loved, and so many of us told the same stories.
I’d like to tell you a few of those about Bill Fleischman, because even for a few minutes, I’d like you to know a little about this fantastic man I was so fortunate to call a pal.
He was, above all else, kind. And decent. When I was a student he always critiqued my stories gently, even when they deserved an acid pen he instead used a feathery touch.
He taught copy editing and layout and cringed at my pathetic design skills. Always with a smile, he was telling me and others for years that I may have been the worst design student he’d ever had (I was really, really bad.)
But he was so proud of my accomplishments as a writer, and so proud of so many of his students. He was constantly telling me of what so and so had just written, and hey, did I read so and so just got a job at this place or that?
He cared deeply about so many of us pupils, since each one of us carried a little piece of him out into the journalism world.
Bill never bragged about himself, or what he’d accomplished: Covering the Philadelphia Flyers during their glory years of the 1970s, and helping put NASCAR on the map in the Northeast with his racing coverage long before the sport got big.
He never talked about the great tragedy of his life: The shocking death in a car accident of his 20-year-old daughter, Heather. Some subjects were just too painful, and we knew never to bring it up.
He had a quick wit, and an easy laugh, and was pretty good with a one-liner. He constantly changed his outgoing answering machine message on his phone, always producing a new joke or two about some race car driver’s recent foibles, or the Phillies’ hot streak. I never failed to chuckle when I called him.
As Bill was leaving my wedding in May, 2013, he told me he had a great time, then added this:
“OK now, I’ve been to two of your weddings. I’m not coming to any more of your weddings!”
Don’t worry Bill, I think this one is going to stick.
He wasn’t a perfect man, of course: Bill was always ornery if you didn’t respond to his emails promptly; to an old-school man like him, an email was like a phone call, something that should be dealt with right away.
Quite a few times I got emails with an opening line of “I don’t know if you didn’t see my email the other day…”
Like a chagrined schoolkid, I always then dropped him a few words. (I discovered this weekend scores of people who got the same scolding emails from him, so I felt slightly better.)
Technology was not his friend. One of the longest afternoons I’ve ever spent in my life was three years ago, at a Starbucks in NYC, when over the phone I tried to teach him how to set up his blog. It was torturous; he was an old dog and I was trying to teach him new tricks and he just wasn’t able to do it. (The looks I was getting from the other customers that day, who heard me trying in so much vain to explain how to create a new post were priceless.)
If it were anyone else, I would have lost my patience after 20 minutes and just said “the heck with it.” But this was my friend, a man who’d been there for me for so long. And so I sat as the hours passed and progress was made ever so incrementally.
My life, and my career, have been immeasurably better because of Bill Fleischman. His friendship and guidance meant so much to me, and as I listened to the eulogies Saturday in a church in Wilmington, I laughed, I teared up, and I sat there feeling grateful that he let me into his inner circle.
Barb told me once that he used to call me and Pearlman and another prized ex-student, Jeff Gluck, “his boys.”
I beamed when she said it. I’m beaming now, just thinking about it. What a special club to be in, to be one of Bill Fleischman’s boys.
I will never see my old friend again, and that makes me sad.
But the sadness of what I will miss is far, far outweighed by the joy of what he gave me.
Goodbye, old friend. I’m sorry I never learned to love NASCAR like you wanted me to, I’m sorry you only got to meet one of my two sons, and I’m sorry your beloved Philadelphia Flyers always let you down (they sent a beautiful bouquet to the funeral, though, you’d be happy to know.)
It was my privilege to know you. Thank you for all you did for me, and for so many others.