Bill Fleischman did it all in his professional career. He wrote books on NASCAR, and covered Wimbledon, the Broad Street Run, and Drexel basketball with equal passion. He was one of the first sports-on-TV critics, with a Rolodex that included numbers for Richard Petty, John Madden, and, he would joke, Moses.
But for Fleischman, 80, who died Wednesday after a battle with cancer, hockey was his favorite subject.
With a wit as sharp as a two-handed slash across the ankles and an eye for bringing to light the personalities of the players he covered, Mr. Fleischman was on the Flyers beat during their glory years of the 1970s.
“Bill was a gentleman and a gentle man," said Bob Clarke, who captained those Stanley Cup champions. “There was no harshness, no vindictiveness [in his work]. He wasn’t ever out to ‘get’ somebody.”
>>FROM THE ARCHIVES: Bill Fleischman as the Flyers win their first Stanley Cup
As the Flyers and their delirious fans spilled onto the Spectrum ice after the team won the 1974 Stanley Cup, Mr. Fleischman noticed the somber reaction from one of their top players, who was injured and unable to play in the riveting 1-0 clincher against Boston.
Mr. Fleischman wrote:
Barry Ashbee [was] on the fringe of the Flyers’ first Stanley Cup celebration, a solitary figure observing the wall-to-wall people from behind sunglasses.
“You might never see another bunch like this,” the ram-rod straight defenseman said in a quivering voice. “I don’t cry much, but I was in tears that last minute and a half. I’ve never been so proud of a bunch of guys in my whole life."
Ashbee suffered an eye injury earlier in the playoffs that turned out to end his career. Three years later, he died of leukemia a month after being diagnosed.
As Inquirer colleague Mike Jensen tweeted, Mr. Fleischman was “a sportswriter who knew what a story was, big or small.”
“If he wrote that Paul Holmgren [messed up] and the Flyers lost, I was OK with that,” said Holmgren, a former Flyers player and current team president. “He told it like it was, but he was fair.”
>>FROM THE ARCHIVES: Fleischman chronicles the Flyers’ second championship
Humor was as much a part of Mr. Fleischman’s reporting as the final score. He nicknamed former Flyers general manager Keith “the Thief” Allen and humorously tagged Ross Lonsberry as one of the team’s worst dressers for wearing “a purple jacket teammates insist was his high-school graduation coat.”
Mr. Fleischman was born in Chester and graduated from Germantown High School in 1956. He attended Gettysburg College, where he met his wife, Barbara, in, of all things, a course on modern poetry. Naturally, he had a zinger for that, too.
“He used to tell me, ‘I’m the only thing you ever got out of that class,’ " Barbara said, laughing.
The Fleischmans settled in Wilmington and had two daughters: Jill Herr, who lives in Middletown, Del., and Heather, who was a student at Syracuse when she died in a 1989 car accident.
Bill and Barbara worked quickly to cement Heather’s legacy by establishing a scholarship at the university’s prominent Newhouse journalism school in her honor. Abigail Van Buren, who penned the nationally syndicated Dear Abby column, was one of the first donors.
Madeleine Davison, Allison Ingrum, Catherine Leffert, and Samantha Perkins were this year’s recipients. The awards ceremony was Tuesday.
“We missed Bill’s inspirational words,” said Rosanna Grassi, associate dean of student affairs. “But the Fleischman family will always be part of the Newhouse school and remembered not only by the students whom this scholarship has helped, but also by all of us who were fortunate enough to get to know Bill and Barbara.”
His daughter Jill added: “My heart is broken, but it’s the price to pay for having exceptional parents, He wrote the best letters to me from the road.”
>>FROM THE ARCHIVES: The night the Flyers ran the Soviet Union out of the Spectrum
Mr. Fleischman worked at the Burlington County Times and the Wilmington News Journal before being hired by the Daily News in 1969. He held the title of assistant sports editor when he retired in 2005, though he maintained contact by coordinating panelists for what became then-Comcast SportsNet’s most popular talk show.
“A true measure of Bill was how he handled the scheduling of all the writers for all the years of Daily News Live," said Pat McLoone, managing editor for sports for The Inquirer and Daily News. "There were a lot of tensions and egos involved in that, but it worked because of how much Bill was liked and respected.”
He taught journalism at the University of Delaware for nearly three decades, instilling in his students that lesson of “firm, but fair.”
“Bill was dedicated to the principles of good journalism, and I’m sure he brought those same high standards to the classroom,” said longtime colleague and Pro Football Hall of Fame writer Ray Didinger. “I know I learned a lot just sitting next to him in the Daily News office.”
Former Daily News executive sports editor Mike Rathet was a fiery type, who often leaned on Mr. Fleischman’s steady hand after a rough meeting. These were 20th-century newsmen, in a time when passion and volatility intersected as freely as Broad Street and Pattison Avenue.
“He was one of the nicest people I have ever met and always came into my office to quiet me down when my temperature rose against something that was going wrong,” Rathet said. “[Bill] saved me from myself several times. ... He didn’t take many bows, but he should have.”
A viewing will be held from 4 to 7 p.m. Friday at the Doherty Funeral Home, 3200 Limestone Road, Pike Creek, Del.
The funeral will be at 10 a.m. Saturday at the First Unitarian Church of Wilmington, 730 Halstead Road. Burial will be private for immediate family members.
In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to the Bill Fleischman Internship for journalism students at the University of Delaware (207 Memorial Hall, Newark, DE 19716) or the Orange & Blue Club at Gettysburg College (Box 423, Gettysburg, PA 17325).