A magazine is a chorus of individual voices, and sadly, one of PEOPLE's strongest and most eloquent voices was stilled when associate editor Bill Plummer, 56, died of a heart attack near his home in Upper Montclair, N.J., on May 6.

Bill arrived at PEOPLE in 1981, and through the years, he wrote with passion, humor and empathy on an enormous variety of subjects. "He could always find the nerve in a story," says special projects editor Eric Levin, a longtime friend. Most memorably, Bill reported on and wrote profiles of Sen. John McCain, Muhammad Ali and poet laureate Stanley Kunitz. That he wrote so insightfully about both poetry and boxing should come as no surprise. Bill, who grew up in Cranford, N.J., earned a Ph.D. in English from Rutgers in 1979; at age 36, he took up boxing and trained for the New York Metro Golden Gloves for six months in order to write Buttercups and Strong Boys, a gritty firsthand account of the hard-knocks world inhabited by amateur fighters.

Bill played lacrosse and hockey at Colgate and continued to play hockey two or three times a week. He was an athlete, he carried himself like one, but there was clearly another dimension. "He was very masculine, but he was also tender and caring," says executive editor Joe Treen. That gentle streak could often be seen in his work. "He understood stories that were complicated emotionally," says Levin. "He loved characters who had struggled in life but kept their sense of humor."

In fact, Bill had seen more than his share of tragedy. In February his 21-year-old son Nicky died suddenly due to accidental causes. The loss was devastating to Bill, his former wife Molly McKaughan, their daughter Samantha, 14, and Bill's wife, Mary Huzinec, mother of their 14-month-old daughter Alexandra. "Bill was the fittest 56-year-old on the planet," says Huzinec, 44, a PEOPLE reporter. "A broken heart over Nicky was certainly a factor in his death."

Aside from his wife and his children, Bill's great love was fly-fishing. "I always told him he needed a 12-step program," says Mary fondly. "Outside of playing hockey and playing with his kids, all he wanted to do was go fly-fishing." This grand passion resulted in another book, a wise little gem called Wishing My Father Well: A Memoir of Fathers, Sons and Fly-Fishing. A river ran through Bill.

On occasion he would take a friend on his fly-fishing adventures. "Once we were fishing the Willowemoc in Upstate New York," recalls PEOPLE senior editor and fellow angler Jack Friedman. "Somehow, he spotted a good fish on the other side of the stream. It seemed impossible, but he managed to catch the trout. He laid down a perfect, graceful cast in complex currents. That was Bill as a fisherman, as a writer and as a friend."

He will be greatly missed.