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PSU’s Fran Fisher ‘a friend to all’

Commentary

September 20, 2013
By Neil Rudel (nrudel@altoonamirror.com) , The Altoona Mirror

Rather than provide the usual letters column this week, I will stray from tradition and devote this space to something all Penn State fans would surely agree is a worthwhile tradeoff.

And that's to wish Fran Fisher a happy 90th birthday, a milestone he'll reach on Monday.

Fisher joined the Penn State broadcast team in 1966 - Joe Paterno's first season as head coach - and served two tenures as the Voice of the Nittany Lions until 2000.

But he was more than a voice.

He was an ambassador. He was a personality who made countless appearances. Along with Paterno and Jim Tarman, he hosted the popular "TV Quarterbacks" show, which did more to take Penn State football into the living rooms around the state than any other media.

He was a pioneer in the Nittany Lion Club, an assistant athletic director and, along the way, he provided radio play-by-play for basketball and wrestling as well.

It was not only what he did but the way he did it that made Fran Fisher such an endearing fixture in Penn State history.

Nowadays, Fisher uses a walker but still drives and remains sharp mentally. He kids that he constructs radio commercials for a few clients on "my old Royal typewriter."

He stays connected by attending the weekly press conferences, sitting in the back of the Beaver Stadium media room with son Jerry and close pal Lou Prato.

"In my last 20 years in town, I've seen Fran up close," Prato, a Penn State historian and former director of the Nittany Lion All-Sports Museum, said. "People from all over come up to him, at the stadium and the Bryce Jordan Center, and he'll remember their names. Fran was a friend to all."

On top of Penn State's Mount Rushmore will always be Paterno, but Prato believes, "If Joe Paterno was synonymous with Penn State football, the second person was Fran Fisher. He wasn't just the football guy, he was the basketball guy, and the wrestling guy, and at the time, this wasn't the Internet/Facebook era. This was how people got their news on Penn State. As far as I'm concerned, they should put a statue of him in the museum or the press box."

n n n

Bill O'Brien's press conference is over, and Fisher and son Jeff are picking through some lunch at Damon's, a TD pass from the Beaver Stadium south end zone.

Fisher, who lost his wife Charlotte in 2008, has been impressed with O'Brien.

"It's a learning experience, particularly with Coach O'Brien," Fisher said. "He's informational, I like his sense of humor, and he answers the questions, which is unusual."

Fisher wants to be optimistic about the future, but he's heartbroken about the past, how the Paterno era ended and the uncertainty over what's ahead.

He finds himself fondly remembering other colleagues who paved the way.

"Some of the people that don't get mentioned - like [former football assistant coaches] J.T. White, Jim O'Hora, Frank Patrick, people that made a lifetime of making this program," he said. "Those are the people I feel badly about. Here are guys that worked so hard to put Penn State football where it is, only to have the rug pulled out. It's too bad."

For the old guard, reunions like the one staged two weeks ago for the 1973 team, which included the announcement that John Cappelletti's No. 22 will be retired, ease some of the pain.

"It was unbelievable, a great get-together," Fisher said. "They got together five years ago, but it wasn't nearly as romantic. Many more people back, many more functions. And I couldn't get over how [great] Cappy looked."

n n n

Looking ahead, Fisher's hopes for Penn State include an athletic department that finds "some consistency" and somehow heals in unity.

"I don't know whether Dr. [Dave] Joyner is going to become the permanent AD or what the future holds," he said. "I suspect the new president will have some say although I don't know what a new president, coming in from elsewhere, will be able to contribute to that situation.

"As I perceive it, there's a bit of disarray up there right now. You can detect it among the coaches and in the community. You see some head shaking, and that has to stop in my view."

He hopes the controversial STEP ticketing program, which has contributed to 15,000 empty seats, is re-addressed, and Beaver Stadium will regularly be full again.

"I'm mildly optimistic," he said. "I think they made in hindsight an error in their gift-structuring program as it relates to seats, and I'm not sure we're going to recover from that anytime soon. I'm anxious to know what the future holds for this program, and this university, and I suspect that I won't be around long enough to find out."

He hopes for the best for a university to which he's indebted. When he was hired to make a three-man broadcasting crew, along with Tom Bender and Mickey Bergstein, Fisher, after attending Penn State in the early 1940s, playing in the Blue Band and later serving in the Navy, was working in Lewistown.

"Here's a guy - a huckster and sports broadcaster from a 1,000-watt station in Lewistown - and he wound up the play-by-play guy at Penn State," he said. "That doesn't happen very often. [Penn State] could have gone to Pittsburgh. Maybe should have. Could have gone to Philly. Maybe should of. But they didn't. They said, 'let's give the old guy a shot' - and that was very unusual."

Happy birthday, Fran.

Rudel can be reached at nrudel@altoonamirror.com. His letters will resume after the open date.

 
 

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