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Friday, January 31, 2014
Geoff Calkins: Tigers' Pastner shows his true colors with dying fan
She got the diagnosis on a Thursday in November. Ruth Fischer had pancreatic cancer, and maybe six weeks to live.
“Of course, everyone was teary,” said Martha Morris, the librarian at Germantown High School. “She was part of the family here.”
You may remember reading about Fischer in this newspaper not long ago.David Waters wrote a column about her 58 years of service to kids.
Fischer was a guidance counselor/miracle worker at Germantown. She was also — like so many in this city — a devout Memphis Tigers fan.
“She had season tickets forever,” said her son, Philip Brewer. “She was one of those who used to wait and watch the WKNO replay after 10:30 at night.”
So the day after her diagnosis, Fischer, 79, went to the high school to tell all her friends. “What are you going to do now?” Morris remembers asking.
“I’m going to the Memphis Tigers game,” Fischer said.
The Tigers played Christian Brothers that evening. Fischer wasn’t going to miss it. But she was low, as you can imagine. Morris decided she needed a lift. So she wrote someone connected to the University of Memphis athletic department with a small request.
“Ruth loved Josh Pastner,” Morris said. “I just thought it would be nice if, maybe, he could turn around and wave to her as he walked on the court.”
Fischer didn’t know anything about this, by the way. Well, until her cellphone rang as she was on the way to FedExForum that night.
“Hello, Ruth, this is Josh Pastner,” said the voice on the other end.
“Right,” said Fisher. “Sure it is.”
“No, really,” said Pastner. “I heard you got some bad news. I’d like you to be my guest at the game.”
A week of tumult
It was another tumultuous week in Memphis Tiger basketball. The home team lost a game to Connecticut it wasn’t supposed to lose. This unleashed another torrent of criticism, much of it aimed at the coach.
I understand the criticism. Indeed, I have criticized the coach myself. And I am the last person to tell you that the coach should not be criticized because — all together now — he is a nice guy.
The job of a head coach at a Division 1 football or basketball program does not involve being a nice guy. If it did, Bobby Petrino wouldn’t be the head coach at Louisville.
Indeed, at first, I didn’t even want to write this story. Because it would be dismissed as another Pastner-is-nice tale.
How twisted is that, by the way? That people could be sick of hearing about the decency of their head coach? So I’m going to tell you the story anyway. Because acts of extraordinary kindness should be celebrated.
And this was an act of extraordinary kindness. Just telling me about it over the phone, Morris had to stop and gather herself.
“Ruth couldn’t believe that Josh had called her,” she said. “He invited her right down on the court. They had a wonderful conversation. She told everyone.”
The evening ended. Fischer was over the moon with happiness. And that would have been that, except what happened next.
“He kept calling,” said Brewer, the son. “From that point on, every three or four days, he would give my mother a call to check in. And every time he called, her spirits soared. She coasted on the crest of that high. My kids joked that there were more pictures of her and Josh in her house than there were of her grandkids. And that was true. They were kindred spirits. They had the same outlook on life, the same understanding of the value of education and the same positive energy.”
Fischer died on Jan. 7. The visitation was Sunday, Jan. 12.
“When I went to sign in, I looked at the register book,” said Morris. “One of the people who signed in right in front of me was Josh Pastner.”
It was at this point in the telling of the tale that Morris choked up. Because, honestly, who does things like this?
Brewer said nobody had any idea that Paster would come to the visitation.
“I joked with my wife that now we knew for sure that my mother was gone,” he said. “Otherwise, she would have gotten right up and walked over to talk to him.”
And that’s the end of the story. A few days later before the visitation, Memphis beat Louisville. A few days after it, Memphis lost to Connecticut. Those are the moments by which Pastner’s tenure will be judged. Nobody would argue otherwise.
But amid the tumult, isn’t it nice to be reminded there’s more to the man? To understand that Oklahoma State and Louisville aren’t Pastner’s only victories?
“He made a dying schoolteacher very happy in her last days,” said Morris. “I just thought someone should know about it.”