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.