GARY PAPA, the WPVI-TV (Channel 6) sports director whose six-year battle with prostate cancer ended yesterday afternoon with his death at age 54, didn't just fight the good fight.

He fought it in public.

For the region, Papa became the face of someone living with cancer, not merely suffering from it. Showing up on camera without hair when he was undergoing treatment, Papa used his cancer as an impetus to educate others about the disease and to raise money for research.

"He's a profile of courage," Scott Palmer, a former Channel 6 colleague who now works as director of public affairs for the Phillies, said yesterday.

"To go through what he has gone through in the last couple of years, and more so the last couple of months, is extraordinary, but to do that publicly, it's incredible," Palmer said. "Through it all, he's been a model of courage and enthusiasm, which he's always had, but has continued to have through this time."

Papa, who last appeared on air May 13, is survived by his wife, Kathleen, and their two young sons, Nathaniel and Tucker. He had been at home as recently as last week, a Channel 6 spokeswoman said. He died at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.

Channel 6 last night devoted its 5 p.m. newscast to "Remembering Gary," with a screen crawl devoted to viewers' reactions. "Gary Papa was amazing and it was obvious he loved what he did," one read.

Reporters were dispatched across the region to interview Papa's fans.

They included Gov. Rendell, who told anchors Rob Jennings and Monica Malpass: "I thought he was going to make it." Mayor Nutter told them, "I've never seen Gary Papa not smiling . . . so it was hard when I heard the news a little while ago."

Papa's chair was left empty throughout the newscast out of respect, Malpass noted.

The station urged viewers to join members of its staff at tomorrow's seventh annual "Run 4 Your Life" Father's Day Prostate Run/Walk to raise money for prostate-cancer research.

Papa was co-chairman of the event, which begins at 8:30 a.m. at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and proceeds along Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.

Papa's death was also the only story on "Action News" at 6 p.m. yesterday. Anchor Jim Gardner and weatherman Dave Roberts, at times blinking back tears, reminisced about their friend, who had worked at the station since 1981.

Papa, who had earned a degree in political science from Cornell University and a law degree from the University of Buffalo, was hired as a sports reporter and weekend sportscaster, having previously worked at stations in his native Buffalo and in Steubenville, Ohio.

He broke into TV sports at WGRZ-TV Channel 2, the same Buffalo TV station that produced both Gardner and Roberts.

From 1983 to 2008, Papa also hosted Channel 6's "Prime Time" magazine.

"Needless to say, all of us who have worked with Gary and who loved Gary are devastated tonight," Gardner said in a prepared statement before the newscast.

"Most of us knew this day would have to come eventually, but there's no way to really prepare," Gardner said. "There is an enormous hole in our hearts, almost as enormous as was Gary's spirit, his devotion to his work and to all of you."

John Clark, a sports anchor at NBC-10, said Papa was a longtime friend and a mentor to him.

"The night before my interview at Channel 10, I was coming up from the shore and didn't really have a place to stay and Gary said, 'Come over and sleep at my house.' So I stayed over his house," Clark said. "He was one of the most giving people I have ever met."

"Gary was a fighter; he gave it his all," said Comcast-Spectacor chairman Ed Snider in a prepared statement. "He was one of the good guys. We will always remember him for his passion for sports and his dedication to the sports scene in Philadelphia."

Eagles chairman and chief executive officer Jeffrey Lurie said in a prepared statement: "I will always remember him for the energy and passion he brought to his profession, especially during some of the toughest times of his battle with cancer."

In a Daily News interview published June 19, 1986 - exactly 23 years before his death - Papa told sportswriter Kevin Mulligan that he had begun knocking on doors in Buffalo for a TV job upon graduation from law school and he recalled how Channel 2 had hired him.

"I'd have taken anything," Papa said. "I said I was looking for a job in news, on the air, whatever. The guy said, 'Sorry, I've got nothing.' As I was on my way out, he said, 'By the way, our weekend sportscaster's leaving.' I told him I'd have a tape on his desk the next morning."

He was hired a week later.

Papa married Kathleen, a delivery-room nurse at Lankenau Hospital, in October 1985, two years after meeting her on a blind date arranged by "Action News" weekend anchor Jennings.

On their wedding day, Papa ran in a four-mile race and took sixth in the over-30 age group.

"My wife was going crazy," he told Mulligan. "I always wondered what I'd have done if I broke my leg or something. Better yet, what would my wife have done? On the trophy, it says, 'In defiance of matrimony.' "

For more information about tomorrow's "Run 4 Your Life" Father's Day Prostate Run/Walk, go to: http://run4yourlife.kintera.org.