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James Joseph Fleming, 80, beloved husband and father, former teacher and coach, died on October 18, 2023 at his home in Milford, Delaware.
James, better known as Jim to friends and loved ones, had a spirit that was steady yet playful, full of curiosity, and deeply kind. He was given to marvel over small details – a sea snail outsized by the barnacle on its shell, or the latest quirk of character revealed in his young grandchildren, on whom he doted.
Jim was the youngest son of the late Robert and Dorothy Fleming, whose loving home grew in him a reverence for family that would prove foundational. Like his parents, Jim was a traditionalist – but his belief in the natural sciences created in him an understanding of the necessity of change and an inherent appreciation of progress. Jim was a man of God and a man of science in equal measure.
Inherited, too, was a lifelong passion for football. As a boy, Jim watched his father coach the Boyertown High School football team – first from the stands, and eventually as waterboy, but always with dreams of joining the team himself. Jim was small and lean, not a lineman or a tackle, so he set his sights on quarterback. For a whole adolescent summer, Jim threw spiral after spiral at an old tire swing, perfecting his aim. His hard work paid off. Jim earned the QB spot on his high school varsity team and would later play at Kutztown State College, while he worked toward his bachelor’s degree.
After graduating college with a degree in education, Jim got a job teaching – and coaching. For decades after, football season found him with a voice made raspy from shouting, pouring over game tapes on Sunday evenings, and with a roster of "sons" to look after beyond his own natural three. Over his decades-long career, Jim coached for a handful of high school teams – but it was as head coach at Lake Forest that he truly came into his own. For over twenty years, Jim guided his team through wins and losses, earning conference championships and, once, a second place in the state championship game.
Jim’s instinct to coach eventually eclipsed the game that inspired it. At Lake Forest, Jim spent spring athletic seasons coaching track and field. When Jim’s own children were old enough to play sports, he coached from the stands. Field hockey, basketball, wrestling, soccer – it didn’t matter the game, Jim was there.
While coaching came naturally to Jim, excesses of attention never did. In 1990, Jim was named Coach of the Year by the Delaware Interscholastic Football Coaches Association – an honor he shared with his family only after an invitation to the awards banquet arrived in the mail. In 1990, Jim was inducted into the Lake Forest High School Athletics Hall of Fame.
If Jim led his team with command and enthusiasm, he led his classroom much the same. Jim was a dynamic teacher, likely because he was a lifelong learner, and his enthusiasm for the natural world was sincere. When Jim earned his Master’s Degree in Biology from Delaware State University in 1995, it wasn’t because he needed the extra credentials – there was simply more he wanted to know. Jim carried his knowledge with ease and shared it generously, often with a dose of humor to keep the lesson fresh. And it wasn’t just his students that benefitted. Family camping trips were an excuse to hold a seminar on local flora. Shellfish for dinner meant anatomy lessons. Jim’s garden, his haven, was a laboratory, and he was always game for a guided tour.
Those lucky enough to enjoy Jim’s companionship knew the depth of his loyalty. With his sister Gloria, Jim shared a fondness that was steadfast, spanning miles as easily as it did their many shared decades. With his friends, Jim was impish. He liked to play jokes, and he loved to laugh. But his longest lasting, most closely held friendships were those that engaged his sense of intellect as much as his sense of humor.
More than anything else, it was toward his family that Jim felt a most singular devotion. As a father, Jim was sturdy and loving. He had high expectations for his children, to be sure – but he held them gently, gave them room to evolve. When understanding lapsed, as it often must between parents and children, disagreements were laid bare, then allowed to fall away. There was always enough love to fill the space between minds.
As a husband, Jim was a true partner. When his first marriage to his high school sweetheart, the late Linda Chick, ended in divorce, the two maintained a mutual respect and fondness that lasted a lifetime after. Over the years, the gravitational pull of their shared history and friendship kept their sprawling blended families held close. But it was with his second wife, fellow teacher Diane Fleming, that Jim would find a true home. Over the course of their forty-two year marriage, Jim and Diane built a life together made of deep admiration, laughter, and faith. Their dynamic was teasing, but tender, and while their shared values provided an enduring core, they enjoyed enough difference around the margins to keep life interesting. They challenged each other, and they delighted in it. And for their children, their grandchildren and great-grandchildren, their marriage was a lesson in loving constancy worth striving for.
Jim will be remembered for his barking laugh. His baseball caps. Speeches that meandered but were nevertheless delivered with such easy authority that listeners couldn’t help but follow along. He’ll be remembered in Eagles games and mashed potatoes and CNN playing a little too loudly in the background. But most of all, he’ll be remembered in quiet moments of exaltation in family, in nature, and in faith.
Jim is survived by his wife, Diane Smith Fleming; six children and their spouses, James Fleming, Robert and Robin Fleming, Becky Fleming, Scott and Stephanie Fleming, Andrea and Daniel McPike, and Nathan and Lauren Fleming; twelve grandchildren, Erin Tucker, Jess Cortellino, Rachel Silkworth, Bret Fleming, Bethany Gray, Alexandra Fleming, Lauren Fleming, Dean Fleming, Seth Fleming, Willow McPike, Asher McPike, and Kylan Fleming; ten great-grandchildren; sister, Gloria Romig; one dog, several fish, and two ducks.
In lieu of flowers, the Fleming family would like you to consider making donations to the Delaware Association for Environmental Education.
A Memorial Service will be held, Oct. 27, 2023 at the Thomas E. Melvin & Son Funeral Home, 15522 S. DuPont Hwy., Harrington, at 6 PM. A gathering of friends will take place from 4 - 6 PM.