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Sports writer helped instill a calling

Bellwood native authored long career

We all mourn when a family member or good friend dies. But I can’t help standing up, yelling the “We Are — Penn State” cheer and heartedly singing “Taking Me Out to the Ballgame” for Bill Summers, one of my first sports writing gurus.

Summers died July 20 at the Veterans Home in Hollidaysburg. He was 92 years old, confined mostly to a wheelchair and bed and couldn’t feed himself properly or hold a telephone. Yet his memory was on par with someone 60 years younger.

Summers was born and raised in Bellwood, but he spent most of his adult life in Orlando, Florida, working for the daily newspaper, the Orlando Sentinel. Bill loved his wife, Lina, baseball, the newspaper business and Penn State, in that order.

I met Summers in my hometown of nearby Indiana when I was 15 years old. My 10th grade teacher had assigned our English class a major project writing about what we wanted to do in the future.

Because two of my uncles I idolized were in the newspaper business, I wanted to be a sports editor. Someone arranged a meeting with Summers, who was sports editor of the Indiana Evening Gazette.

I put together a portfolio folder that summarized my interview with “Mr. Summers” along with my reasons for wanting to be a sports editor and several photos regarding the subject that I had cut out from national magazines.

In looking over that report recently, one of Summers’ tips rang true to this day: “The salaries are not too high, but it varies with different papers.”

I received an A, and within five years I was the interim sports editor of the Gazette in the summer before my junior year at Penn State.

Summers left the Gazette in 1956 for a general news copy editor’s job in Orlando. I may have heard about that at the time but quickly forgot it. I forgot about him, too, as he simply disappeared from my life.

Then, in the early 2000s, when I was the director of the Penn State All-Sports Museum, I received a letter from him. I was shocked.

He wrote that he had been following my freelance writing career in the 1960s and early ’70s when my work was being published in national magazines, particularly Sport, a then-popular monthly.

I wrote back and sent him a photo copy of that original 10th grade report I have saved. We have been corresponding ever since, and I often visited his home in Orlando.

In all the letters he sent and in all the conversations we had in person, he never complained about his deteriorating health, and he never used a swear word. That epitomized the Bill Summers I know.

His long-time Orlando home was just a few walking blocks from the football stadium now known as Camping World. I didn’t know he was a journalism grad from Penn State, like me, until he told me. I learned all about his life from the multiple letters we exchanged, even after he moved into the Veterans Home last winter to be closer to his surviving relatives.

Summers was there as Walt Disney turned sleepy Orlando into an international tourist mecca, reporting on many of the things that has attracted millions to move permanently to Central Florida. Yes, he covered space shots, too, and he met his share of celebrities.

From his letters, I also learned about other stages of his life, including his time in the Navy before enrolling at Penn State, particularly about his months at the nuclear bomb testing sites in the Bikini Atoll and his visits to post-war Japan.

In recent months, one could hardly read some of what he scribbled on yellow-lined paper. However, nearly always, there was something in the notes that went back to his days as a catcher in sandlot baseball, starting in Bellwood.

Summers never hesitated to criticize something I wrote that misused grammar or had a comma out of place. He had an opinionated streak, too, and in recent years he would express that opinion in letters to the Altoona Mirror.

My friend, Neil Rudel, the Mirror’s managing editor, was telling me about that one day when I brought up Summers’ name. Shortly after Summers moved into the Veterans Home, I asked Rudel if he would like to meet Bill, and on May 3, we spent an hour with him in his room at the facility.

His mind was as sharp as ever, commenting about various things, including the TV programs he always watched when not sleeping. Rudel and I enjoyed the banter. We told him we would be back in a couple of months.

I’m sorry we didn’t make it back.

But I’m sure Summers has already told the man upstairs how he’d love playing catcher on his baseball team.

He’s probably telling him over and over about the time back in Bellwood when he was nearly knocked unconscious by a baseball that hit his — OK, private parts. He’ll understand.

Go with God, my friend.

Prato is a retired journalist and Penn State historian living in State College.

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