BLOOMFIELD, NJ — Renown runner and coach Tom Fleming, 65, died of an apparent heart attack Wednesday, April 19. It was reported by Montclair Kimberley Academy, where he taught and coached, that Fleming collapsed at an MKA track meet in Verona. Fleming, a Bloomfield High School graduate, Class of 1969, had also lived in Glen Ridge.
“Tom Fleming was a beloved teacher, coach, mentor and friend to many,” said Todd Smith, the MKA athletic director where Fleming had taught for 18 years. “This is gut-wrenching news for the MKA community, for the running and track community throughout Essex County, and the country,”
There was similar praise for Fleming before he died.
In October 2016, at the dedication of a track at Watsessing Park, East Orange, Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo Jr. lauded Fleming, a two-time New York City Marathon winner, for “putting Essex County on the map” with his marathon victories. Fleming had been instrumental in having the park track dedicated to Glen Ridge resident and 1952 Olympic steeplechase champion, Horace Ashenfelter.
In a statement following Fleming’s death, DiVincenzo Jr. called him an icon at the pinnacle of his sport who loved running, coaching and mentoring young athletes.
“He was a very dear friend who inspired generations with his accomplishments,” DiVincenzo Jr. said. “Our thoughts and prayers go out to his family.”
Lillian Ashenfelter, wife of the Olympian, remembered when she first met the teenager Fleming at her front door.
“He wanted to see the Olympic medal,” Ashenfelter said in a telephone interview this week.
Her husband was not home and she went upstairs.
“I got the medal out of the sock drawer where it was kept,” she said. “They didn’t in those days put the medals around the runner’s head like they do now. They handed it to them.”
Ashenfelter, a retired Glen Ridge teacher, said Fleming was a born teacher.
“His death must have left his students devastated,” she said.
Ashenfelter’s grandchildren attended school in Glen Ridge with Fleming’s children. She also remembered shopping for sneakers at an athletic shoe store Fleming owned in Bloomfield Center.
Another person who remembered the shoe store — Tom Fleming’s Running Room — was Joel Pasternack, a former Glen Ridge High School cross-country and track coach who trained with Fleming. They first met as competitors in a William Paterson College-Monmouth College cross-country meet. Fleming attended WPC. They hit it off when they discovered they lived close to each other. Pasternack resided in Clifton.
“We got together and I ran with him for 15 years,” Pasternack said in a telephone interview this week.
He credited Fleming for inspiring him.
“Because of Tom’s leadership, I finished 25th in the 1976 NYC Marathon,” he said.
He could not remember exactly where, but he said Fleming was in the top 10 for that race. And in the Boston Marathon two years earlier, in 1974, Pasternack said he had finished 28th and Fleming second. Twice he finished second in the Boston Marathon.
“The Boston Marathon was No. 1 to him,” Pasternack said. “If there was anything he wanted, it was to win the Boston Marathon.”
The Olympics also eluded Fleming. Pasternack said in the 1972 trials, Fleming did not finish. In the 1976 trials, he finished fifth and was an alternate for the Olympics but the team only took the top three finishers. And in 1980, Pasternack said Fleming did not have one of his best days and did not finish. However, that same day after the trials, they did some long-distance running together.
“He made me the man I am today,” Pasternack said. “I wouldn’t have achieved what I did as a runner and a coach without him. When I met him, it sparked something.”
Pasternack said he spent many hours with Fleming in his store.
“I helped him open it,” he said. “I had an athletic shoe store in Greenwich Village that I opened in 1978.”
He figured Fleming opened his store about 1980.
“In 2001, Tom decided to stop competitive racing,” Pasternack said. “He always wanted to be No. 1. When he turned 40, he started getting into coaching more heavily.”
Pasternack last saw Fleming three weeks ago at a half-marathon in Montclair. He heard about Fleming collapsing the day it happened.
“I was at a coaching session and got an urgent phone call,” he said. “I rushed to Mountainside Hospital. I got there at 8 p.m. I was told he passed at 6:30. I thought he’d outlive us all.”
Another person who got the news that day was Paul Giuliano, manager of Fleet Feet, in Montclair.
Part of the local running world, Giuliano helped to originate the Sunset Classic, the summertime race in Bloomfield and Glen Ridge to benefit the Bloomfield Educational Foundation. In a telephone call last week, he said there were many things to remember about Fleming — charismatic, a great guy — but Guiliano spoke about the race which began in 1987.
“He was very helpful in getting the Sunset Class off and running,” he said. “It was one of the best 5-mile races back in the day. Back then, there were 2,000 to 3,000 runners. It had a festive, party atmosphere. They did that for 10 years and then it went on hiatus.”
To restart the race, the organizers again reached out to Fleming. The Sunset Classic has currently been staged for 17 straight years.
“His running background was huge and he knew how
to put on a race,” Guiliano said. “He put us in the right direction.”
He last heard from Fleming when he received a message from him wishing him good luck in the Boston Marathon, in which Guiliano ran Monday, April 17, 2017. The last time he saw Fleming was the day he died. But he saw him on film.
According to Giuliano, the Boston Athletic Association had produced a movie on the Boston Marathon which was being given a one-night screening at a movie theater complex in Clifton. Giuliano said he and some friends were watching the film. Fleming appeared in a film clip, racing. “‘Hey, there’s Tom,’ we said to each other when we saw him,” Giuliano said.
It was after the screening and they were outside. The smartphones were turned on and they read the news.
“I’m still shocked,” Giuliano said. “When he came into the room, you just wanted to listen to him. He’s going to be missed by a lot of people.”
Giuliano said there will be something special done for Fleming at the 2017 Sunset Classic.
Glen Ridge Councilman Peter Hughes said after his first marathon he crawled across the finish line. Fleming then coached him for six months he cut 45 minutes from his time. He crossed the finish line with a smile.
“Joe Di Vincenzo has announced he will dedicate the track at Brookdale Park to Tom,” Hughes said.
He also recalled a quote by Fleming.
“Coming in second just means you’re the first guy to lose,” he said.
Glen Ridge Councilman Dan Murphy, the present director of two races run in the borough on Thanksgiving, the Ashenfelter 5-K and the Fleming Mile, said Fleming was part of the fabric of Glen Ridge and Bloomfield. Murphy was responsible for having the mile race named for Fleming.
“The last time I saw him was at the start of the Cherry Blossom Run,” he said. “Joe Di Vincenzo gave him a shoutout. He brought him to the microphone.”
The Cherry Blossom Run is a 10K race most recently staged Sunday, April 9. 2017.
Murphy said Fleming had a runner in the Cherry Blossom race. She won. Her name, he said, was Alexandra Niles.
In a telephone interview this week, Niles, said she first met Fleming about eight years ago when she wanted to become a runner. She started with shorter distance races. Fleming convinced her to run the marathon.
“He was as good a person as everyone says,” Niles said. “The last time I saw him was Sunday. I spoke to him on the phone Monday or Tuesday about my training plan for the week.”
On Wednesday, Niles said she checked her phone. There was a message from Alban Basmajian, Fleming’s assistant at MKA. He needed the phone number of Fleming’s daughter.
“I knew something was wrong,” she said.
A memorial service is planned at MKA, on Sunday, April 30, 10 a.m.