Death takes three classic people, but their memories will remain

July 06, 1995|By BILL TANTON

What an awful week this has been. Three of the most unforgettable people I've ever known have died.

Charley Eckman, the brash little referee and sportscaster, is gone. It seems as if everybody knew Charley.

I first knew him when I was in high school, playing basketball at St. Paul's, and he officiated our games. Eckman knew my father, Lank Tanton, an ex-Loyola College athlete.

"I seen you holding that No. 23," Charley would say as we ran downcourt, his whistle pushed to the side of his mouth. "Keep your hands off him, Lank." Throughout his career, even in the NBA and top college games, he loved to talk to the players.

Everybody has his favorite memory of Eckman. One that shows Eckman was more than just a loud guy with a wisecrack goes back 20 years. The University of Baltimore had just won the 1975 NCAA College Division soccer championship. That prompted a call from Charley.

"Wheel," he bellowed, which was his normal way of talking, "these kids from the University of Balmer just win the national championship and there ain't a so-and-so in town doing nothing for 'em. We're gonna have a nice banquet for 'em Thursday night at Maria's in Little Italy. Be there at 6 o'clock."

Click. He was gone. And I was there at 6 o'clock that night for a memorable banquet that never would have taken place if it hadn't have been for Eckman.

Yesterday Frank Szymanski, the U of B athletic director, reminisced about that night.

"Dick Edell was our soccer coach [and is now University of Maryland lacrosse coach] and he and I planned that soccer banquet with Charley," said Szymanski.

"Charley brought in 12 businessmen and told them they were going to put up $1,000 each to pay for the dinner and the trophies. He told me and Edell to just sit there and shut up. He said the business guys would take care of everything."

Szymanski went on.

"Charley loved this town," he said. "He always said the definition of an expert was a guy from out of town."

Two days ago, former tennis great Pancho Gonzalez died. That reminded me of a spectacular event that took place here on a beautiful, late summer Sunday afternoon in 1969.

In those days, some of the best tennis players in the world came to the Baltimore Country Club to play a tournament on the grass courts in the week before the U.S. championships began on the grass at Forest Hills.

Australian Rod Laver was then No. 1 in the world. In the finals at the BCC, it was Laver vs. Gonzalez.

Laver was still in his 20s, while Gonzalez, who had been the best player in the world 20 years before, was 41 and a grandfather. But Gonzalez, a fiery Mexican-American, still had tremendous pride.

"It was one of the greatest tennis matches I've ever seen," says Bill Lamble, who was chairman of the BCC event.

"Gonzalez played his heart out in a long match. He was trying to prove he could still play with the best. But Laver won.

"Laver won at Forest Hills, too. But the 500 or so people who saw that match here have never forgotten it."

Last Monday, an old football and lacrosse coach at St. Paul's, McDonogh and Virginia, Robert P. "Pic" Fuller, was buried in Oxford, Md. He was a lasting influence on my life -- as he was on the lives of many other young athletes.

Fuller, who was 76 at his death, grew up in Glyndon and graduated from St. Paul's at the age of 16.

He went on to Virginia and was an All-Southern Conference guard in football. He cleared the way for the greatest football player in Virginia's history, College and NFL Hall of Fame halfback Bill Dudley.

When Fuller came back to St. Paul's to coach, he led his football and lacrosse teams in laps around the field and in calisthenics. He was one strong, tough guy.

He was also as principled as anyone I've ever known. He never cursed. When he exploded at us, he'd throw down his clipboard and holler: "Aw, for crying in a bucket!" Or, "Jumpin' Jehosaphat!"

He preached and lived the good sportsmanship code. One day our lacrosse team was playing at Gilman. It was a big game. We were undefeated.

Early in the last period, a fight broke out. It wasn't much of a fight. Two kids swung at each other. They went down. Somebody piled on. The refs broke it up. The whole thing took maybe 15 seconds.

But Fuller was furious over his team's poor sportsmanship.

Back on the sideline, he said: "I want every boy who was on the field when that happened to take a seat on the bench for the rest of the game. You've embarrassed your school and yourselves."

We lost the game, of course. Afterward one kid whined to Fuller, "Gee, you didn't have to kick us all out. I was down at the other end of the field when the fight broke out."

I can still hear Fuller's reply.

"Son," he said, "you'll remember this lesson long after you've forgotten the score of this game."

I long ago forgot the score of the game.

I still remember the lesson.

Thanks, Pic.

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