When local sports legend Bill Byham passed away in late May 2017, his unpublished novel — offering relevant life lessons through the prism of junior-high football — could easily have died with him.
The manuscript of “Bucky Deacon’s Dilemma,” pecked out on a typewriter during summers by the pool, had languished for decades since Byham tried unsuccessfully to get it published through the comparably limited outlets of the 1980s and ’90s. The dream of sharing Bucky’s story with the world would have remained unrealized, but for a friend who fondly remembered his once-upon-a-time reading of it.
“A couple weeks before he died, Bill just wanted to write. He talked about it a lot,” said Tom Speicher, who met Byham as a Lycoming College freshman. “About two years afterward, I got the idea that publishing his book would be a great way to pay tribute to him. We need more stories like this, sharing the virtues of teamwork, conflict resolution and friendship.”
The two men’s relationship is a particularly heartening “buddy story” of camaraderie and mutual respect, begun in that long-ago fall 1985 semester.
Speicher, now a writer/video producer at Pennsylvania College of Technology, had taken his interest in sports announcing to one of the best practitioners in the area.
Byham, retired from a distinguished career as a teacher and coach in South Williamsport, mentored sports announcers for Lycoming’s radio station, WRLC. With Byham’s guidance, Speicher became a mainstay on the station’s football and basketball broadcasts. A few years later, he interned in Lycoming’s Sports Information Office when Byham headed that department.
In 1998, Speicher joined the WRAK Radio crew as the “Man in the Crowd” for one of Byham’s favorite assignments: the Little League Baseball World Series. They would work together for 20 of Byham’s 56 consecutive years at the microphone, a phenomenal record of service that resulted in naming the Volunteer Stadium press section in his honor.
The rapport that developed over those years proved invaluable as Speicher began his mission to bring “Bucky Deacon” to life. He contacted Byham’s son, Rob, who “scrounged around and found the original manuscript” — which was missing a chapter — and who gave the family’s blessing to the endeavor.
“Knowing Bill, he probably let someone read the chapter — and never got it back,” Speicher said. “And since it fell at a crucial point in the story, after he had set up such a compelling conflict, I had to brainstorm and fill that hole from scratch.”
Throughout multiple readings and revisions, Speicher said his foremost goals were to honor Bill’s memory and to preserve his voice. While the text has been updated to reflect the times — “there were no smartphones or social media in Bucky’s original world,” he said — it was important to retain Byham’s personality.
Feedback indicates that he succeeded: “People who have read the book, those who knew Bill, say they could definitely hear his voice,” Speicher said.
Speicher fleshed out that portrait with names that meant much to the mentor: The Southland Wolves reflect his co-author’s longtime association to South Williamsport, as well as to the mascot at his Kane High School alma mater; and the Wolves play their home games at Nellie Stadium, named for Byham’s wife of 63 years.
Others will have the enjoyable experience of hearing that distinctive voice when purchasing “Bucky Deacon’s Dilemma” through Amazon — the paperback now, or the Kindle version on April 30. (Perhaps another tie to Byham, whose “That’s 30” appended a fabled journalistic signoff to all of his broadcasts.)
Publication isn’t the end of Bucky’s story, however. Echoing Byham’s lifelong commitment to young people, part of every sale will go toward easing students’ struggles to pay for higher education.
“Tom came to me with a genuine interest in donating a portion of the proceeds to Penn College. Like the intent of the novel, he wanted the funds to make a difference — and, the Emergency Scholarship Fund felt like the right designation,” said Loni N. Kline, vice president for college relations.
“The fund supports students with circumstances that result in unforeseen financial burdens while pursuing their education. Tom’s lovely gesture will go a long way in helping students stay on track with their academic pursuits, for which we are extremely grateful.”
Aiding the scholarship fund isn’t the only campus connection in Bucky’s story. Along the road to publication, Speicher enlisted several colleagues and co-workers.
The front and back covers were designed by Kennedy L. Englert, a 2020 graduate in graphic design and advertising art, now working as a designer at Missouri State University; and judicious early-draft suggestions were offered by Jennifer A. Cline, editor of Penn College Magazine.
Speicher received additional input from novelist/screenwriter Paul Lally, also a writer/director for “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” and an executive producer for “Ciao Italia,” America’s longest-running cooking show. (The two men met while Speicher was executive producer and co-host of “You’re the Chef,” a national public television series based in what was then the college’s School of Hospitality.)
He also consulted with two men who regularly traveled in Byham’s orbit: fellow broadcaster Ken Sawyer and Gabe Sinicropi, vice president of marketing and public relations for the Williamsport Crosscutters.
Contacted, as well, was Speicher’s niece Allison Baltz, a first-grade teacher in Chesterfield County, Virginia, who advised him on the age-appropriateness of the book’s themes. The recommended age range for readers is 10 to 14.
Bucky’s dream to play on an elite eighth-grade football team in Pennsylvania comes with a high-stakes challenge: “He’s got to learn to share the huddle with a fierce rival from the other side of town, who doesn’t want to play along,” notes the spoiler-free back cover. “To make it across the goal line, Bucky must learn powerful lessons that extend far beyond the gridiron that can help him succeed on the playing field of life.”
Nellie Byham, Bill’s wife is also excited about the book being completed. “It is exciting. I’ve already had some good reports from people who have really enjoyed it. Our kids (Kathi and Rob) and several other family members are also excited, and they all have a book. We just are grateful Tom took the time to do this.”
She also told the story of when Bill decided to begin writing his book. “It was many years ago when he was still teaching. He was among a group of teachers South Williamsport sent to the Wilkes-Barre school district. While there he went to the school library and discovered there were no books for young teenaged readers. He loved to write, so he decided he would sit down and write this book aimed at situations young athletes might deal with in their lives. He was very excited when he was writing it and would be delighted to know that Tom and others have completed the project.
“Bill did most of the writing during the summer and I can recall him sitting at our picnic table writing all the time. It took him quite a while to finish but he never did take the next step to have it published.
“Bill always had a love for writing. When we were first married and lived in Downingtown he was a stringer for one of the Philadelphia papers and would send it various sports stories. When we would go to the shore he would sit on the beach and write stories or poetry. Writing was always a part of his life and something he really enjoyed.”
When asked about how Buck would feel about the book being completed, Nellie said, “He would be so excited. He’d be going on and on, jumping up and down and saying, ‘yeah!’ I’m sure in would motivate him to keep on writing again.”
“Bucky Deacon’s Dilemma” is available for order, both in paperback ($6.99) and Kindle ($3.99) editions.
“I hope people see this as a proper tribute. Bill certainly deserves it. He was a very positive force who truly saw the best in people,” Speicher said. “I’m glad his voice can live on through Bucky Deacon.”