When the senior center in his town needed new televisions, Robert E. Sondheim of Sharon had an idea to raise some money. An open-water long-distance swimmer since college, he had always wanted to swim the English Channel, 21 miles in 50-degree waters.
“He got halfway between England and France, and the current took him in another direction,” said his longtime friend Dave Clifton, who was Mr. Sondheim’s trainer for his 1983 and 1985 attempts.
Clifton covered Mr. Sondheim’s body in lard to protect him against the cold and fed him from a boat. When a shift in the current pulled the swimmer off course and stole his strength, Clifton had to make him get out of the water.
“He gave it the all-American try. But it wasn’t a total loss because he raised money doing it. That’s the kind of guy he was. He was always there to serve. He had a great sense of community,” Clifton said.
Mr. Sondheim, who was the former athletic director of Sharon High School and spent 26 years working for the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission, swam for charities many times after that.
On the day before he died on April 8 at his home in Sharon at age 63, he swam to raise money for Global Soap, an Atlanta-based nonprofit that recycles soap from hotels across America and sends thousands of new bars to poverty-stricken areas in 29 countries. He had taken a nap in the afternoon after gardening on the 8th, his family said, and he died in his sleep; they do not know the cause.
Mr. Sondheim raised $2,500 the day he swam for Global Soap by swimming a mile in a Randolph pool using only his hands and forearms in a technique known as sculling. The swim took him 90 minutes.
“He wanted to challenge himself. He was always challenging himself to do better,” said his companion, Carol Abram of Sharon.
Mr. Sondheim supported Global Soap, which was begun in 2009 by Ugandan native Derreck Kayongo, for its efforts to save children’s lives by battling disease-born illness in the developing world. As a swim coach, Mr. Sondheim rallied students to swim for the charity as well.
Born in Brookline, Mr. Sondheim grew up in Pennsylvania after his parents separated. His father, Arthur, played baseball at Brown University in the 1930s and fueled his son’s love of athletics, Mr. Sondheim told friends.
Mr. Sondheim graduated from American University and earned a master’s degree in political science from Boston College in 1973. At the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission, he held several posts, including statewide transportation coordinator, for many years.
Mr. Sondheim’s daughter, Carrie, said he loved to talk about his channel swims and tell stories of great moments in Hockomock League interscholastic sports. He volunteered to coach swimming in Sharon schools almost 20 years ago.
He left state government for a career in high school athletics in 2001. “He took a pay cut, but he always said it’s about what makes you happy and fulfilled in life,” said Carrie, of Sharon.
At Sharon High, Mr. Sondheim launched fund-raisers to buy extra sports equipment and posted his “Sondo Stumper” sports trivia questions on a bulletin board outside the school gym. He gave free sodas for correct answers.
He sang tenor in the Sharon Community Chorus and once swam laps in a lake to raise money to buy the chorus a new piano.
As athletic director, Mr. Sondheim sometimes sang the national anthem before sporting events. He also enjoyed writing poetry.
“He was really the most multifaceted person you could ever meet,” said Abram, who was an assistant tennis coach when they started dating in 2011. His ability to diffuse tense situations during youth sports first impressed her. “He would step in and be the voice of reason,” she said.
He served on the town’s Finance Committee, was a member of the Rotary Club, and sometimes broadcast election results on cable access television.
Hockomock sports fans also knew him as the voice of high school basketball and football games on radio and local cable. He did color commentary, while Clifton, who was Sharon’s recreation director, called the plays.
“He was always upbeat. He loved the town of Sharon and working with the kids,” said another friend, former New England Patriots quarterback Steve Grogan, who owns Grogan Marciano Sporting Goods in Mansfield.
Grogan recently appeared on a local cable television show Mr. Sondheim hosted. They talked about Patriots history and issues in football. “Everybody in town knew his voice,” Grogan said.
Long before cellphones, Mr. Sondheim and Clifton were covering a high school football game in Framingham where they lost their connection to the radio station. Clifton found a nearby phone booth, where he could see Mr. Sondheim standing on the field.
“I did the play by play in the telephone booth and Bob Sondheim stood in the end zone giving me the signals. He raised his fingers with the number of the person carrying the ball and the other hand for the tackle,” Clifton said.
One time at Norwood High, they broadcast from the school’s roof. They were doing postgame commentary when a custodian took away the ladder. The fire department had to rescue them. “Did Curt Gowdy and Johnny Most have to go through something like this?” Mr. Sondheim joked.
The day he died, Mr. Sondheim finished tilling his vast garden and planting peas. He called Abram and said he was going to take a nap. Each year he grew enough to donate several baskets of produce to the senior center and his neighbors.
“Bob was one of the most selfless people I’ve ever known,” said another longtime friend, Andy Nebenzahl of Sharon. “He was the most naturally friendly person you’d ever meet. There wasn’t anything that Bob, when asked, would say no to.”
Last year, Mr. Sondheim gave a graduation speech to the Sharon High class of 2012. His words were full of optimism and a call to serve others. “Look for the good in people, because we all have it,” he said.
His wife, Celina (Kelley), a social worker, died of cancer in 2011 at age 62.
In addition to his daughter, Mr. Sondheim leaves a son, Andrew, of Sharon; a brother, Arthur, of Maine; a niece, and a nephew. Hundreds of mourners attended a memorial service held in the Sharon High School auditorium. Burial was in Rock Ridge Cemetery in Sharon.
“I picture my mom and dad meeting in heaven,” Carrie said. “My mom’s sitting on a beach reading. My dad’s walking down the beach in his Speedo and my mom says . . . there goes my peace and quiet.”