Before there was Google, there was Arnold Sulby, whose encyclopedic knowledge and steel-trap memory settled many a bar bet and produced, nearly without fail, the answer to Final

Jeopardy!

Mr. Sulby, 80, of Bala Cynwyd, died Monday, June 6, at Bryn Mawr Hospital after a stroke.

Beginning in the 1960s, as households of two working parents proliferated, Mr. Sulby became a crusading advocate for quality day care. He worked for the cause for four decades.

He was "a Renaissance person," said his lifelong friend Harvey Finkle, a photojournalist, whose first photos materialized in a closet darkroom set up by Mr. Sulby. "He loved people and conversation."

When they were teens in Philadelphia's Oxford Circle section, "sports were a big part of our lives," Finkle said. "Arnold was not fast of foot, but he had a jump shot. If you got him the ball, he was deadly."

Mr. Sulby graduated from Central High School in 1953. Around that time, he began to be drawn to the gritty vibe of South Philadelphia, where he frequented the pool halls and juke joints, and later staked his professional life.

As fans of the Phillies and the Eagles, he and his wife, Jeannie, could be found on fall Sundays at home sharing chips, dips, and the vicissitudes of their beloved Birds.

"He was the absolute love of my life," said his wife, to whom he was married for 32 years.

Mr. Sulby received a bachelor of arts degree from Temple University, and a master's in social work in 1963 from the University of Pennsylvania.

In 1968, he became director of Associated Day Care Service of Philadelphia, a small South Philadelphia agency. Under his leadership for more than 35 years, it grew to encompass 100 affiliated private homes, primarily in low-income areas, serving more than 400 preschoolers. Mr. Sulby helped grow the network and lobbied tirelessly for state support.

Mr. Sulby was a former president of the Pennsylvania Association of Child Care Agencies, and his passion was evident in his October 1990 letter to the Inquirer, in which he criticized a program that he contended spent excessively on administration. Calling it "shameful," he wrote, "We nonprofit day care centers used to think our competition was drugs, poverty and blight."

In 1995, to honor Mr. Sulby's quarter-century of service, Michele Ridge, wife of then-Gov. Tom Ridge, sent him a commendation that read in part, "the governor and I . . . thank you for making a difference in the lives of our most precious resource."

Mr. Sulby's son Matthew said the timing of his father's death and that of Muhammad Ali "got me thinking about why the heroes of my youth - Ali, Martin Luther King - were African Americans. I think it was because my father was a social worker who communicated empathy for people who struggle."

In addition to building his career in South Philadelphia, Mr. Sulby collected a Goodfellas-worthy cast of characters there, from bookies to bartenders as well as the abstract painter Murray Dessner, whom he called Desi.

Mr. Sulby's wavy white mane was trimmed by a South Philly guy he called "the Wizard." He lunched regularly at the Bomb Bomb, a Wolf Street joint named for two explosions there following a dispute in 1936. In short, he loved the neighborhood's quirkiness.

His son Ari said his father's social consciousness and love of travel are "why I ended up where I am," as a State Department economic adviser. "Growing up, hearing about the Vietnam War and what happens when things go wrong, made me want to get into foreign policy."

Mr. Sulby devoured classics, popular novels, even the Daily Racing Form. After he retired in 2009, there were weeks when he polished off a paperback a day. He loved music, especially jazz, and was a talented flutist.

In addition to his wife and sons, he is survived by stepson David Carazo; two sisters; and two grandchildren.

A service will be held at 2 p.m. Wednesday, June 8, at Joseph Levine & Sons Memorial Chapels (West), 2811 West Chester Pike, Broomall. Interment is private.

Contributions may be made to a charity of the donor's choice.

mmatza@phillynews.com

215-854-2541

@MichaelMatza1