Take care…

The second-to-last time I saw Bill Fleischman, my college professor and mentor, we were on a beach in Florida.

He watched as I carried my infant daughter, Liliana, down to the ocean and dipped her feet into the water for the first time. He took a photo of my little family — me, my wife, Sarah, and the baby — and we strolled around the sprawling condominium complex that housed a rental unit he shared with his wife, Barb.

The Fleischmans were snowbirds from Delaware, and their annual trip to Florida’s Treasure Coast coincided with Daytona Speedweeks. How lucky for me, since he was no longer covering NASCAR races — as he did at several tracks for decades — in his retirement years.

We hugged goodbye, having shared several hours and a pleasant lunch together, and I began the two-hour drive back north. He was quick to follow up with correspondence.

“We really enjoyed our time with you,” he texted that night. “Your daughter is a cutie; we’ll always remember her first experience with the ocean. Hope your Daytona week goes smoothly. Take care…”

He almost always left things as “Take care…” although that was something I didn’t notice until going back through texts and emails this week.

But that day in Florida turned out to be particularly meaningful, because the last time I saw Bill Fleischman, my college professor and mentor, was Friday. We were in a funeral home, and he was lying in the casket.

Less than four months had passed between our visits, with a cancer battle, ultimately fought and lost, in the intervening period.

The finality of death brought the realization there would be no more guidance from Professor Fleischman. And that is difficult to accept. Even after I graduated from the University of Delaware — my head now filled with his knowledge of sports writing, copy editing and layout — he was always a trusted source of wisdom. I’d ask for advice about how to handle situations or seek input on the latest journalism controversy.

And now? He was gone. Class dismissed.

But a funny thing happened on Saturday, when his family and friends gathered to say their goodbyes in Wilmington. A common thread woven through those in attendance at the funeral revealed one more lesson — and it had nothing to do with journalism.

At least once a month, I would receive an email or text message from Fleischman (it used to be a phone call or a news article marked up with a red pen, but times change). He’d provide an update on what he was up to, comment on a current event or two (usually NASCAR-related), ask how I was and, of course, end with “Take care…”

If I didn’t respond in a timely manner, he would follow up by writing “Ahem. Just making sure you’ve seen this…” at the top of his next update. Once, after going too long between replies, he threatened to bring out “Rocco, the gatekeeper in the penalty box.”

When I finally wrote back, Fleischman opened his next email with: “Rocco, cool it. Jeff Gluck finally responded. I know you’re disappointed, Rocco: you were eager to head to Charlotte and pay Jeff a, um, ‘visit.’ Jeff would learn you are very persuasive.”

In truth, I received far too many messages that included “ahems” and “just making sure you’ve seen this…” I’ve been awful at correspondence and keeping in touch for years; my own mother recently commented on how we hadn’t spoken by phone in a month. Yikes.

I don’t have any legitimate excuses for this. When someone sends an email, text or leaves a voicemail, and I don’t respond in that moment for whatever reason (wrangling the baby? stressing out over something on Twitter?), it’s easy to let myself think, “I’ll get back to them later.” But then the days — or weeks or months — sometimes slip away, and maybe I never do.

Fortunately, Fleischman was always willing to follow up — even if it meant a good-natured scolding. As it turned out, I wasn’t the only recipient of his frequent correspondence.

I learned Saturday that Fleischman wasn’t just sending emails to a select few all this time — he was writing to dozens of people. He maintained all sorts of relationships — with former students, former colleagues, friends from all walks of life — by continuing to reach out to them and ask how they were doing.

As a result, his own life was enriched by letting others know he cared about them. I know this because of the turnout for an 80-year-old man on a Saturday morning, because of online tributes and news articles about his passing, because of the stories shared at his funeral from those who had scores of emails in their inbox.

What a beautiful cycle of communication and love. Instead of just meaning to get in touch with someone, Fleischman actually invested the time to do so — and on a regular basis. It’s really such a small gesture, but it holds so much value in life.

Are there people in your world who you care about but haven’t spoken to in awhile? Has someone reached out and you keep meaning to get back to them but haven’t?

Both those things are the case for me, and it’s time I do better at both. We can’t wait too long, because we never know when the clock will run out.

And after all, I’d rather consider it a lesson learned before Rocco comes showing up at my door.

20 Replies to “Take care…”

  1. A great lesson for us all to learn – thanks Jeff. We’re praying for Bill’s family.

  2. Prof Fleischman would tell Rocco to permanently lay off Jeff! Excellent tribute and a great life lesson for one and all.

  3. Thanks for sharing Jeff, Life is brief and fragile. I believe the time Mr Fleischman invested in you is paying off in all that you do.

  4. Jeff,

    In many ways you are our Professor Fleischman …..

    (San Francisco Bay Area)

  5. Heartfelt musings!There is much truth to the expression “Life is short”. What a wonderful and meaningful relationship shared with your professor, mentor, and friend. We all will reap the benefits of it for years to come…the cycle of life…Much love Jeff!

  6. Well said Jeff! In this crazy digital age we all could do a better job of keeping in touch with family and friends. I am sorry for your loss.

  7. Sitting here in Wilmington on this rainy Sunday morning reflecting on this article Jeff . Rarely have I read a more moving piece, thanks for sharing this Jeff, see you later

  8. Thank you for sharing your heart-felt lessons with all of us. Bill sounded like a wonderful person who educated his students inside and beyond the classroom.

    I am sorry for your loss.

  9. What a wonderful relationship you shared. All to often, we all think of our favorite mentors or teachers and never take the time to reach out to them.. I know that teachers and professors are always touched to visit with a former student. It’s a very special relationship. You will always be thankful you had that last memorable visit with him. So sorry for your loss.

  10. What a wonderful article and tribute to him. I feel his frustration…I know what its like to be on the non receiving end…(reaching out…then crickets). We can all do better.. He held your feet to the fire…and didnt stop reaching out even if you didn’t respond …

  11. This is beautiful Jeff. Thanks for sharing more about Bill, and your relationship with him. What a touching tribute.

  12. Sorry for your loss Jeff. I unfortunately had to go through laying my mentor to rest a few years ago, it was tough. It sounds as if our relationship was identical to yours and the processor’s. May he rest in peace.

  13. This was so beautifully written with lots of love💕It also made me think about what I should be doing. Hey Jeff, did you ever think of writing for a living? (kidding)

  14. There are so many 👍🏻 or ❤️ I give on these comments. People care about you too Jeff. 😊

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