In Memoriam: William H. Fishback Jr., Former University Spokesperson

William H. Fishback Jr. led UVA’s communications efforts and taught student journalists for more than 40 years.
December 19, 2017

William H. Fishback Jr., former associate vice president of University Relations, died Dec. 15 in Charlottesville from complications of Lewy body dementia. He was 83.

A native of Lexington, Kentucky, Fishback grew up in Savannah, Georgia, and graduated from Washington and Lee University in 1956, where he later served 10 years on its Board of Trustees. He was a writer and editor at the Richmond Times-Dispatch until 1966, when he answered the call of higher education, beginning a career of more than 40 years at the University of Virginia, where he served under four presidents. 

In addition to working with the media as the University’s spokesperson and overseeing University Relations activities, eventually as an associate vice president, he also taught newswriting courses in the English department to hundreds of students over the years and was an informal adviser to student journalists at the Cavalier Daily and the now-defunct University Journal. He continued to teach after retiring in 1995 as special adviser to UVA President John T. Casteen III, a position he held for four years.

Reflecting his love of Virginia politics, Fishback was instrumental in the creation of both the Center for Politics and the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership at UVA. In recognition of his significant service and contributions to the University, he received the Raven Society’s Raven Award in 2004.

Colleagues recalled Fishback as a citizen of the University, an old-school journalist and a valued adviser.

Leonard Sandridge, former executive vice president and chief operating officer who worked at UVA for 44 years, said Fishback was involved in every significant event that occurred during his time on Grounds. “He knew the field of journalism and developed a comprehensive organization to engage with reporters and the University’s constituents,” Sandridge said, calling him “a valued and competent adviser to many of us in both the good and the challenging situations.”

Some official events he worked on behind the scenes included Queen Elizabeth’s visit in 1976 for the U.S. bicentennial; President Ronald Reagan’s visit in 1988; and the education summit hosted by the National Governors Association, attended by then-President George H.W. Bush.

Casteen wrote that he remembers Fishback “as a newsman empowered by his recollections of great events – desegregation as it occurred, Virginia politics as a sharp young reporter had observed the action, the modern university as Bill and a small group of friends imagined it and built it, and then as a coworker. … Bill lived in important times and he shared bits of those times with just enough ironic displacement to set each recollection into larger historical contexts.”

Fishback hired Louise Dudley as director of news services in 1989, but the two worked together briefly when he came to the Grounds in 1966. Dudley worked in the news office for a few years at that time, moved to the D.C. area, and returned for a second stint at UVA.

As “an old-school journalist, still typing draft letters on an ancient manual typewriter when the rest of us were moving on to email,” as Dudley described him, he passed down timeless lessons, she said, among them: “Recognize that reporters have a key role in helping the broader public understand the University, that the University is best served by being as clear and open as possible, and that a lot can be accomplished if one doesn’t care who gets the credit. It was a great honor to follow in the footsteps of a mentor who set that kind of tone.” Dudley succeeded Fishback and filled the same role until 2003.

Dudley’s successor, Carol Wood, who joined the University Relations office in 1995, came to UVA because Fishback recruited her late husband, Bill Wood, in 1993 to lead the Sorensen Institute.

“Bill’s love for the University and his deep understanding of its importance to every single student, as well as its significance to the state and to higher education writ large, were the guiding principles for those who were fortunate enough to work with him,” Wood said. “When I joined his team in then-University Relations, I knew that I had fallen into a special learning and work environment that would change my life.”

Others also mentioned his attention to students as another hallmark of his devotion to UVA.

“He gave remarkable gifts of humanity to his students. He knew each one, and he measured their subsequent accomplishments with both admiration and occasional amusement,” Casteen wrote.

“As a practitioner, he was an effective and popular teacher in the classroom,” Sandridge added.

Long active in the Episcopal Church, Fishback was a member of the Board of Trustees of the Protestant Episcopal Cathedral Foundation, which oversees the National Cathedral in Washington and its several schools. He was a senior warden and a member of the vestry of St. Paul’s Memorial Church in Charlottesville, and served on various committees of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia.

Among several boards on which he served were the Charlottesville-Albemarle Chamber of Commerce, the Charlottesville/University Symphony, the Tuesday Evening Concert Series and Madison House.

He is survived by Sara, his wife of 61 years; a brother, John Randolph Fishback; three children: William Praleau Fishback (Christine), Jean Fishback Elwood (James) and Sara Fishback Bissett (Peter); and four grandchildren: Will, John and Robert Elwood and Laura Bissett.

A memorial service will be held Jan. 5 at 11 a.m. at St. Paul’s Memorial Church. A private service will be held at the University of Virginia columbarium.

Media Contact

Anne E. Bromley

University News Associate Office of University Communications