So today I returned to the campus of the University of Delaware for the first time in five years. I was there to honor Bill Fleischman, my friend and former professor who died earlier this year. I was asked to say some words about a man who truly impacted my life. Here’s what I offered …
Back when I was a student here at Delaware, my writing hero was a guy named Mike Freeman.
Mike had been editor of the review a bunch of years before I arrived, and during my undergrad years he was covering the New Jersey Nets and New York Giants for the New York Times. And after working up the nerve one day, I sent Mike a packet of my clips, asking for his critiques.
A few weeks later he sent me back the bundle, accompanied by praise, criticism, etc. And, paper-clipped to the articles, a note that read: STAY HUMBLE, KEEP WRITING HARD, KEEP WORKING HARD …
And then, in triple underline with two or three exclamation marks, the words AND LISTEN TO BILL
It was probably the best advice I’ve ever received.
The early-to-mid 90s was a heady time for the University of Delaware journalism program, and for the review. We thought we were really special. We thought we were hot shit. People read the newspaper, and recognized us walking across campus. There were big scoops about scandals, about football championships. There were editors who just oozed future stardom—Ted Spiker, Rich Jones, Archie Tse, Sharon O’Neal, Doug Donovan. There were these zany professors—Dennis Jackson, talking 10,000 miles per minute about some hotshot sophomore. Harris Ross, smoking cigarettes outside his office. Prof Nickerson, who I literally saw smoking a joint at the end-of-year review party. Ben Yagoda, pumping out books and inspiring us to write with grace.
And there was Bill Flesichman.
Bill was different than the others. Than all of it. I’d argue he was the most accomplished journalist in the department—certainly when it came to the sports scene in Philly—but you’d never know it. He didn’t brag. He didn’t boast. He didn’t tell you about how great he was. He didn’t name drop. He would call you into his office and talk at length. About writing. About your parents. About how he had a jewish last name so he could eat lox.
I was probably the worst editor in chief in the history of the review, which led one professor to rightly call the office and say to me, bluntly, “You’re the worst editor in chief in the history of the review.” But Bill never, ever, ever piled on or ripped me. He always understood what college journalism was—a place where mistakes are supposed to be made; a place where you take chances, experiment, go for it. Was he congratulating me when we dug up a photo of a short statured alum, put a football helmet atop his head and ran the April fools issue headline, MIDGETS FIGHT TO TAKE OVER NEWARK? No. But he got the idea. That voices aren’t always developed without rough patches, and bumps in the road accompany youth.
Now, I’m gonna make some controversial statements about Bill, and I hope they come with understanding. Bill wasn’t the best journalism professor I ever had. I’m not even sure he was that great of a technical professor. Classes could drag on a bit. He was probably a wee bit behind the times with his layout advice. His jokes were more bob hope than chris rock. I remember people tapping their fingers against the desk, waiting to leave for the stone balloon or deer park. And Bill was not the most dazzling writer at the daily news. He was a great reporter, an amazing worker of sources, as dependable as water. But were his ledes these gary smith-esque pieces of brilliance? Probably not. And his love for NASCAR? Not feeling it. Ever.
But here’s the thing—the most important thing. Too often we make the mistake of judging people based upon the trivial. We write these obituaries and give these odes and base it strictly upon measurable accomplishments. Upon bylines, upon net worth, upon races won and tournaments mastered.
But Bill Fleischman was the only professor or teacher from my lifetime—high school, undergrad, grad—who I invited to my wedding. And he was invited to a lot of weddings of former students.
Bill Fleischman was the only professor I ever had who I regularly called for advice—and who so many people here called for advice.
I never heard anyone—literally ever—say a bad word about Bill Fleischman. Not in my time as a student here. Not in the 25 years that have followed as a journalist. Not once.
To me, his legacy is the most profound legacy a person can have, and it far exceeds anything I’d need to say about him as a great professor or a great journalist.
Bill was a truly, truly good and decent and kind man. A father who suffered a profound tragedy but would not let it strangle him, a journalist who watched print crumble but remained optimistic, a husband whose wife ultimately left him for the game of golf, a brother, a teacher, a colleague, a really lovely and dear friend.
All those years ago, Mike Freeman was right.
The best thing I could do was listen to Bill.