BY JEFF FALK
To the Lebanon County athletic community, he was an underated athlete, one of the best baseball players that the locale has ever produced, one of the early influencers of the Elco soccer tradition and a dedicated coach.
To his family, he was a patriarch, an invuable support system and a role model.
On July 16th, the Fulks and the Lebanon County sports community lost Bill Fulk – William Edwin Fulk – when he passed at the Good Samaritan Hospital in Lebanon. He was 77.
Quick with a smile or a word of encouragement, Fulk chose to lead the later years of his life in the background, in the role of a supporter. But during his younger years, Fulk was quite the leading man.
He co-captained the West Chester University men’s soccer team to a national championship in 1961, at a time when the NCAA didn’t divide itself into divisions. Fulk also played professional baseball in the Detroit Tigers’ organization for ten seasons, reaching the Class AAA level.
Fulk was inducted into the Central Chapter of the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame in 1983. He and his wife Judy also owned and operated the Buy-Rite corner grocery store in Myerstown for many years.
“He was loving and caring and extremely patient,” said Keith Fulk, one of Bill’s two sons. “I pushed the envelope a little bit. He was unbelievable. He was strict, but he was also really fair. He taught me to be patient and to trust my insticts. He was a special man. He epitomized what a father should be.
“He was really, really proud of Derek and I,” added Keith Fulk. “And I’m just so proud to be the son of Bill Fulk.”
“I think a lot of people don’t realize the things he accomplished as an athlete,” said Derek Fulk, the second of Mr. Fulk’s boys. “I think people knew him from the Buy-Rite. But what he accomplished as an athlete was remarkable, incredible.
“He’s definitely one of the top athletes to come out of Lebanon County,” continued Derek Fulk. “He was always a person who was giving. He was probably one of the most humble people I’ve ever met. He was very intense, and he wanted you to do things the right way.”
After starring in soccer, baseball and basketball in high school, Fulk earned an athletic scholarship to play both soccer and baseball at West Chester. Not too long after his graduation from West Chester, Fulk was drafted by the Tigers as a catcher and played professionally up until his early 30s, during which time Keith was born, in Duluth, Minnesota.
“The reason he chose baseball was because he had an opportunity to play professionally, but he loved soccer too,” said Keith Fulk, a former professional soccer player and now a technical consultant and assistant coach at the University of Tampa. “He instilled that into me, but I respected baseball a lot. It’s when I really started loving soccer. We learned how to love the game.
“I had an inredible childhood,” Keith Fulk continued. “They had me when they were young, and we were all over the place. By the time I was five years old, I had been in 25 states. I loved traveling. I was kind of a gypsy. But when Derek was born, they were done with baseball.”
“He took a lot of pride in the Elco soccer tradition,” said Derek Fulk, the Raiders’ head girls’ coach. “He went to all the games, boys and girls. He always supported both programs. There was a connection to everything. He coached spring soccer. We’ve always set the bar very high at Elco.”
Following his retirement from professional baseball, Fulk and his wife ran the Buy-Rite, and it eventually became a Myerstown institution. Before it closed in the late 2000s, the Buy-Rite was operated by the Fulks for more than 30 years.
“It’s amazing how many people he reached with the grocery store,” said Keith Fulk. “He loved the community. Some people knew about his past, they respected him and wanted his opinion.
“He was like a father figure to a lot of my friends, to a lot of kids growing up,” continued Keith Fulk. “He was really nice. He was patient. I tell the kids I coach, ‘Be good. Be kind. Be nice.’”
“I couldn’t have asked for a better dad,” said Derek Fulk. “He was probably one of the hardest working men I ever met. He always put everybody ahead of himself. He cared about everyone. He cared about his community.”
Fulk also coached Myerstown junior legion baseball teams during the 1970s and 1980s. During the later years that the Buy-Rite was still in business, Fulk assisted head coach Keith Evans with the Lebanon Valley College baseball program.
“He was a huge influence on me,” said Keith Fulk. “He always paid attention to the little details. If you care about sports, you’ve got to respect them and then you’ve got to put in your work. I, and my brother, are direct reflections of my dad. I live my day, everyday, the way he wanted me to.”
“As far as soccer goes, he had a huge influence on me,” said Derek Fulk. “The two sports that I mainly coach now – baseball and soccer – those were his sports. I was always running stuff by him, up until the end.”
Fulk also spent about ten years coaching along side Derek, as assistants with the Myerstown Senior Legion baseballl program. Myerstown captured back-to-back Lebanon County American Legion championships in 2014 and 2015.
“It was great,” said Derek Fulk. “He was the guy who got me involved with sports. We loved it growing up because of him. He saw things in a different way. But to coach with my biggest hero was great.”
“He was a better athlete than me,” said Keith Fulk. “He could shoot a soccer ball harder, and he was faster. (Legendary University of Indiana head coach) Jerry Yeagley said he was the best teammate he ever played with, a great friend and the best athlete he ever saw. He did everything with a type of class, a certain dignity. He wasn’t a yeller or a hollerer. He explained the game and taught the game. He was witty and smart and funny. His humor was really special. And he remebered so much.”
And he was memorable.