Hard to say bye to the Big Guy

by | Nov 21, 2010 | Comment, Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

Some people you just get used to. There’s a guy in our Sports Department, a big hunk of man named Matt Fiorito. Matt was larger than life – when sitting, he seemed to be squatting on a throne – and he loved to talk and he loved to eat; he shook when he laughed and wore glasses and had a big beard, the kind in which you’d expect to find crumbs from the Blue Plate special. But he was a fixture in the office. They say that “half of life is just showing up”?

Matt showed up.

He was there, at his desk, when I arrived 25 years ago, and it feels as if he has been there forever. Matt did more than five decades in the newspaper business, the last half at the Free Press as a copy editor and bowling columnist. He had a slow gait, a respect for good writing, a love of children and a gentle, somewhat high-pitched voice for a man who resembled a wizard from Middle Earth.

But Matt was more than that. Much more. He was kind and thoughtful and humble and eccentric, and he had more courage than the next 10 guys in line. He used it in recent months to battle back, lung and cancer problems, in and out of hospitals, off and on machines, wrestling the devil to an even draw.

He celebrated his 74th birthday in the hospital. He used the occasion to renew his wedding vows with his wife, Nancy.

Some people you just get used to.

But where’s everybody going?

Somebody you could count on

Doesn’t every office have a guy like Matt? People whose face you associate with a place? You think they will always be there. And then one day, they don’t answer the phone. And all you have are stories.

There are a million stories about Matt Fiorito, from riding an elephant to handing his shoes to homeless people. Family lore states that as a kid in Canada, Matt ran around the streets pretending to be a superhero named Flag Man. He’d tie the Canadian flag into a cape and look for bullies who were bothering innocent children.

Even then, he was a guy you could count on.

Matt covered bowling for this newspaper, did it so well, he made several Halls of Fame for that sport. In between, he edited copy – on night shifts, day shifts, weekdays, weekends. Sometimes, he’d be the only editor in the office, engaging callers in conversations that went longer than they needed to, because Matt seemed to find something fascinating in everyone.

Now and then, if I wrote something controversial, Matt would leave a message saying, “Good column, but can you please clean out your voice-mail box? It’s full.” By that point I knew he already had answered a dozen calls personally, informing readers that no, I was not a lunatic and no, he didn’t have my home address.

Somebody who made a difference

A few weeks ago, Matt was admitted to the hospital fighting acute leukemia. I called him in the cancer ward, had one of those “keep the chin up” talks.

Later, he sent me this e-mail:

“Hey – I really appreciated the phone call. I’m sure I won’t have any trouble staying positive, but if I do, I’ll call you for a booster shot.

“As a high school dropout, I’ve occasionally been asked to speak to alternative-ed grads about turning things around. And I always bring up the age-old college sophomore question – ‘Why are we here?’ The answer is simple, I tell them, we’re here to make a difference.…

“In July, when I was felled with blood clots in my lungs – which could have been instantly fatal – one of the doctors said ‘I guess God didn’t want you yet.’ (Apparently the devil didn’t, either.) So I figure God kept me around so I could make a difference in someone’s life.

“I’m looking forward to kicking this thing and getting on with the mission.

“Best to you and your family – Matt.”

He died Nov. 13.

I’m sorry, I’ve kind of rambled here. I just don’t get why we keep losing these great people, why they are here one day, pillars of our world, and gone the next. Where’s everybody going? I seem to be asking that all the time now.

Contact Mitch Albom: 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com.

Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/mitch.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

New book, The Little Liar, arrives November 14. Get the details »

Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

Subscribe for bonus content and giveaways!