Is there anything BAM readers don’t know? On the opening spread of the September/October Classes section, we published an old photograph we liked but knew nothing about. It depicts a middle-aged, mustachioed man wearing a suit, a tie, a fedora, and enthusiastically waving a Brown banner at Brown Stadium. Everyone else in the photograph is looking at him, seemingly amused by his behavior.
Who was he, we wondered?
Dave Colinan ’57, of Sarasota, Florida, was the first to weigh in. “The man in the photo … looks to me like ‘Willie,’ who showed up at every home game back in the early to mid 1950s.” Willie would wave a pennant at every game, Colinan continued, even if the pennant did not always represent either of the teams actually on the field that day.
“Willie was lots of fun and the fans loved him,” he wrote. “Arriving at the stadium, everyone looked for Willie. I frequently saw Willie leading Brown cheers from his favorite perch, facing the stands while standing on the top of one of the exit ramps. Unfortunately, one day, in the midst of the cheers, there was a sudden very loud thud, then silence, followed by cries of ‘Willie fell!’ That was Willie’s last cheer.”
Could the man in our photo have met such a tragic end? We were skeptical.
Then another half-dozen similar letters arrived, all from members of 1950s classes. “Between 1950 and 1954 I attended every home football game,” wrote George Monteiro ’54, ’64 PhD. “For a while during that time ‘Willie’ was a familiar presence at the games, standing up when everyone else was sitting, waving a Brown pennant, and utterly drunk. It was our understanding that he had no official connection with Brown, not as an alum, teacher, or employee. Everybody in the grandstand noticed him and most of them shared, with amusement, in what you might call his joie de vivre.
“Unfortunately,” Monteiro recalled, “on a Saturday afternoon in 1953, Willie stumbled while walking down the aisle steps and fell over into the cement walk-up. Badly injured, he was taken away by ambulance. I never saw Willie again. It was said that he died from the head injury he suffered in the fall. No one ever seemed to know his last name.”
James Mello ’58, of Rixeyville, Virginia, was at Willie’s last game. “During the game this man was making his way across the top of one of the tunnel openings when he toppled over and fell to the cement about fifteen feet below,” Mello wrote the BAM. “I heard him hit. He was killed by the fall.”
William P. Hinckley ’55, of Columbine Valley, Colorado, remembers that this occurred at the Colgate game on Thanksgiving morning, 1954, and that “the game was halted and the stands went silent. That evening, my fraternity brother Paul Bosland called me and asked me to call five students and ask each one to call five others, creating a request for money for the funeral, which was held on Monday. The Daily Herald that day had a black border on its front page.” Hinckley thought that the man’s real name was Joseph, that he worked as a dishwasher, and that he lived “in a small flat in a poor section of the city.”
Knowing how stories can become distorted over almost sixty years of retelling, we asked our crack BAM interns to check the facts on this one. Did Willie really fall to his death during a Brown football game? If so, was it in 1953 or 1954? Was he really a down-and-out dishwasher? Was his real name Joseph? Off to the archives they went.
Among their discoveries was a front-page article in the Tuesday, November 30, 1954, Brown Daily Herald titled, “Rites Conducted Yesterday for ‘Willie,’ Brown Rooter.” The unsigned report noted that Willie had died at 8:15 the previous Friday at Rhode Island Hospital from “a compound fracture of the skull and bruises of the brain sustained in a fall at the Brown-Colgate game Thursday morning. Willie fell over the protective wall of Portal E opposite the 50-yard line, and landed 15 feet below on the concrete floor of the passageway.”
The Herald reported that Willie was in fact Robert P. Flaherty, who had been born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, on September 27, 1900, and had been working in Providence as a textile printer. He was survived by two brothers and six sisters and buried in Rumford, Rhode Island. Contrary to William P. Hinckley’s memory, there was no black border around the Herald’s front page that day or any other day during those weeks.
Incidentally, the BAM got Willie’s story wrong. His death was reported in a small box in the January 1955 sports section, but he was identified as Robert P. Flanagan, an error that prompted a letter of correction from Frederick G. Brown ’21, the president of the Apponaug Company, a textile-processing business. “For your information,” Brown wrote, “Willie was affectionately known to us as Bob and was a loyal and efficient worker for this company over a great number of years.” Fifty-seven years later, the BAM appreciates the opportunity to set the record straight.
As Brown’s 250th anniversary approaches, we intend to publish more photos from our archives. We fully expect our readers to fill in these random but colorful bits of Brown history. And if you have photos from Brown’s past that could use some clarification, send them along. With your memories and our interns, you never know what we’ll discover.