Remembering a Penn State Icon

COMMENTARY: Nittany Lion broadcaster and goodwill ambassador Fran Fisher’s people skills set him apart.

The year was 1985. It happened to be my first season covering Penn State football for The Daily Collegian.

At the time, Joe Paterno held his weekly press conferences each Wednesday at Toftrees, before the Quarterback Club Luncheon. These events could not have been more different than the formal press conferences that are held today (with James Franklin perched on a podium in the front of the room and the reporters below having to wait for microphones to ask their questions).

Back in the day, Paterno met the press in a conference room at the hotel, with a handful of reporters around a table. There was no predetermined order to who asked questions; rather, everyone just kind of knew when it was his (or her) turn.

As mind-blowing as that scene was for a young scribe, well, it only got crazier a few weeks into the season when I was tasked with interviewing Fran Fisher. All these years later, I can't even recall what the story was about. But I remember meeting Fran as if it happened yesterday.

At the time, he was the former radio play-by-play man for Penn State football, yet still an icon to Nittany Lion fans and students. I had heard him on the radio, seen him on TV. He was still close to the program as the head of the Nittany Lion Club, and still very much a local celebrity.

I nervously approached Fran after Paterno's press conference, introduced myself, and asked if I could interview him. As he replied, all I remember thinking was, “Holy bleep, I'm talking to Fran Fisher!” I'm sure he could sense I was a tad awestruck, and somehow -- with his easygoing style of conversation and great sense of humor -- helped me make it through the interview.

In the three decades since then, I have seen hundreds of people -- fans, media types, coaches, former players, kids, you name it -- become mesmerized upon meeting Fran. And every time, he would magically make them feel at ease.

The year was 1994. The Penn State football program was entering year No. 2 of Big Ten competition. And for reporters, the novelty of traveling to road games in all of the new places had already worn off. It was expensive. It was time-consuming. It was a pain to organize.

In PSU's first two seasons in the conference, there were trips to Iowa, Ohio State, Northwestern and Michigan State (in '93), then Minnesota, Michigan, Indiana and Illinois (in '94). The days of driving a few hours to cover games against traditional Eastern opponents were gone.

Penn State was nice enough to set aside a block of rooms for the media at the team hotel for every road game. But most of the properties seemed to be in the middle of nowhere (because Paterno wanted peace and quiet for his players).

Fortunately, reporters were able to find a little slice of home on every trip.

Because in 1994, Fran was back doing the radio call, along with friend and color commentator George Paterno. So when you rolled into, say, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on a Friday afternoon, you'd stow your stuff in your room. Then you'd head down to the lobby bar, where George's friendly face was sure to greet you. When the team arrived, George was joined by Fran.

Within a couple of hours, everyone on the beat would be hanging out with the two living legends. It didn't matter if you worked for the biggest newspaper in the state or a small magazine (as I did at the time) -- George and Fran were sure to include you in the conversation.

From that rallying point, the scribes would eventually head out to dinner, usually in small groups. As for George and Fran? Well, more often than not they would be swarmed by fans, and would stick around until they had a chance to chat with every last one of them.

The duo -- as well as the reporters -- would later reconvene in a hospitality suite with Joe Paterno, for the famous Friday night, off-the-record sessions. And if you were smart, well, you did a lot more listening than talking.

The year was 2012. Penn State had just endured the most trying 10 months in the history of college sports. Fran was in his late 80s, and though his body was failing, his mind was as sharp as ever.

Fran had long since retired from the broadcast booth, but was still a very visible presence on the Penn State football scene. He attended practices when he could, and sat in the back (along with close friend Lou Prato) at the head coach's weekly press conferences (Paterno, Bill O'Brien and then Franklin). He'd good-naturedly jab reporters with well-timed one-liners, some of which were even fit for print. But he always saved his best material for cracking jokes at his own expense.

Early in the 2012 season, Fran agreed to be a guest on our weekly television show, The Nitwits, which tapes in Altoona on Sunday mornings. Since we both lived in State College, he asked if I could give him a lift. Of course I could.

So I picked him up at his house, helped him to the van, folded his walker into the back and headed out on the 45-minute drive to the station. After the taping, there was another 45-minute drive home. And by the time I dropped him off, I had a true appreciation for exactly how sharp he was. It went way beyond his amazing wit.

Fran told me things in confidence, and I'm not about to break that trust. But I don't think he'd mind me saying that he had very strong (and very informed) opinions on the way Penn State handled the Sandusky disaster. He was under no illusion that Joe Paterno was perfect. At the same time, it broke his heart to see how quickly people turned on the old coach in an effort to save their own skins.

But the conversation was not limited to that. We talked about business. We talked about our career paths (his was much more interesting than mine). We kicked around the non-scandal gossip of the day. We talked about our families.

We talked as if we were friends. I'd like to think we were.

The year is 2015. Last month, some of us on the beat organized a “roast and toast” event to honor Jeff Nelson, the longtime PSU football media contact who was promoted to a new position in the athletic department. Everyone would pitch in 10 bucks for food and we'd all pay for our own drinks. We'd poke fun at Jeff and ourselves.

This baby had Fran Fisher written all over it, and we were thrilled when he agreed to attend and say a few words.

Well, thrilled and terrified. As emcee of the event, it was going to be my job to introduce all of the roasters, zing them a bit and expect to be zinged back in return. I enjoy doing this sort of thing, and I'm no stranger to public speaking, but I knew I was not in Fran's universe when it came to one-liners. I could only hope his best material would be saved for Nelson.

We scheduled the roast for the night of April 18, after the Blue-White Game, since so many reporters would be in town at the time. The location was Lettermans near Beaver Stadium, which was formerly known as Damon's.

I swung by Lettermans that Friday night to do a radio appearance with Fran's son, Jerry, and on my way out ran into Fran and his other son, Jeff. Fran did not look well. We talked about the roast the following night, and he said he still hoped to make it. But I could tell it would be difficult for him.

That was the last time I saw Fran. But it was not the last time I heard from him.

Neil Rudel of the Altoona Mirror was the co-organizer of the event. And two days after it was held, he received a call from Fran, who profusely apologized for not showing up. Fran asked Neil to pass along his regrets to me and Nelson.

“Class guy,” Neil texted me a few minutes later. Was he ever.

On April 28, I received a voicemail from Neil. Fran had sent him a written apology for not attending the roast and included a check for $40 to cover any cost issues. He also inquired about setting up a lunch meeting for the three of us.

The check, of course, went right back in the mail. But the thoughtfulness behind it made us both smile.

The lunch? Sadly, that never happened. Fran's health continued to decline the last couple of weeks, and he passed away in his sleep Thursday morning.

Later in the day, as I reflected on the last 30 years, it occurred to me that, of all my memorable interactions with Fran, none was more telling than the first.

He was larger than life.

But only because he never pretended to be bigger than the people around him.

Looking back at Fran Fisher's 91st birthday celebration last season.

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