Yesterday afternoon, I learned that a computer virus had destroyed all my laptop's files. I took the news well. The only thing I'd miss, I knew, was that photo of me standing awkwardly beside John Updike in a National Gallery hallway.

It was 15 minutes later when my daughter phoned to tell me Updike had died at 76.

As I grew too old for baseball heroes, I found a literary idol.

For nearly 40 years, I virtually stalked Updike. A reporter friend once gave me the Pennsylvania-born author's telephone number in Ipswich, Mass. It occupied a slot in my wallet for decades, like some prized autograph. I had hoped I would get the opportunity or the courage to call him and discuss, well, anything would have been fine.

I never did.

I discovered Updike as a teenager when, drawn to it because I'd heard a fallen basketball hero was its protagonist, I read Rabbit, Run. Immediately, and ever after, he spoke to me. His facility with words, his descriptive gifts, his perceptive spirit were, in my eyes at least, unmatched.

That devotion ripened into an obsession when in 1972 I got my first newspaper job, at the Reading Times. The young Updike, I learned, had worked at the Times' afternoon sister, the Reading Eagle, as a copy boy.

In the newspaper morgue, I found the features he'd written. I also set out to discover all the local places he'd described in his novels and in short stories such as "In Football Season" or "Friends from Philadelphia."

Reading, as Updike aficionados know, is Alton or Brewer in the stories and in the Pennsylvania novels - like the Rabbit series and my favorite, The Centaur.

He was born in Reading and grew up in Shillington, a modest suburb just a short trolley ride west of that old brick-factory town's hub. Later, his parents - a teacher and a frustrated writer - moved to a nearby farm, in Plowville, near the Pennsylvania Turnpike's Morgantown exit.

I arrived in Reading in 1972, not long after Rabbit, Run was filmed there - an awful movie, by the way. It didn't take me long to walk across the Penn Street bridge or get a beer in the Woodward, just as Rabbit, James Caan, had done.

I got my hair cut at the shop where the young Updike had gone. Luther Hornberger, the immaculately groomed barber whose outgoing nature belied his Pennsylvania Dutch heritage, spoke of how the boy had been a great fan of the Boston Red Sox and Ted Williams - the subject of his famous New Yorker piece "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu."

Hornberger told me how, as a writer on the Shillington High newspaper, Updike had written an article that, if you read only the first letter of each line, spelled out "Yankees stink."

I found Updike's original boyhood home, a handsome white-stucco corner house on Philadelphia Avenue, and admired the famous dogwood tree in its yard.

"When I was young, my parents and my mother's parents planted a dogwood tree. . . . The tree was my shadow, and had it died, had it ceased to occupy, each year with increasing volume and brilliance, its place in the side yard, I would have felt that a blessing, like the blessing of light, had been withdrawn from my life."

I found the farm in Plowville where he'd moved at 13, which, like Shillington, had been the scene of so much memorable fiction.

In fact, once, when I stopped on a dirt road to point out the barn and the sandstone farmhouse where his mother still lived, I turned to see Updike, wearing an Army fatigue jacket, striding rapidly toward me. I don't know if he was about to chase me or whether he assumed I was someone he'd been expecting, but I threw the minivan into gear and sped away.

That barn had been the setting for perhaps my favorite scene in Updike's work, the spiritually poignant conclusion to his story "Pigeon Feathers," in which his fictional surrogate, a young teenager named David, is gripped by existential angst until he sees the luminous feather of a pigeon fall from the barn's rafters.

"He was robed in this certainty: that the God who had lavished such craft upon these worthless birds would not destroy His whole Creation by refusing to let David live forever."

On several other occasions, most of which my children painfully endured and would like to forget, my family and I would drive from that farm into Reading, while my wife read The Centaur passage describing that very journey.

I indirectly got to speak with him during one of his lectures at Ursinus College, his mother's alma mater, dreaming up some stupid question that he politely - and smilingly, as I recall - answered.

Though he spent only 18 years there, Updike mined Shillington, Reading and Plowville for the rest of his life. Each return visit to the farm, to see his mother, seemed to produce another short story about his youth there.

I borrowed heavily from the one that marked his mother's 1989 death, "A Sandstone Farmhouse," in the eulogy I gave following my own mother's passing 14 years later.

"His tears came and kept coming, in a kind of triumph, a breakthrough, a torrent of empathy and pity for that lost young woman running past the Pennsylvania row houses, under the buttonwood trees, running to catch the trolley . . . this tiny, well-dressed figure in her diminishing pocket of time."

In 2003, our children took my wife and me to Washington for our 30th anniversary. We were all walking through the National Gallery when I saw Updike, casually dressed in khakis and a polo shirt, coming toward me.

For an instant, I thought the kids had managed the greatest birthday gift ever. They convinced me it was serendipity, but my son, having been witness to this literary adoration for decades, insisted I stop him.

I did, and we talked briefly about Reading, about the Times and the Eagle and what it had been like to work there, about the museum's featured Winslow Homer exhibit.

Then my son snapped the picture. In it, I am standing there, looking half-dazed and half-frightened. Updike is carrying a bag from the museum's gift shop and smiling.

That was the picture I discovered I had lost yesterday.

It was such a minor loss compared with the one his beloved Pennsylvania and readers throughout the world have endured.

Contact staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick
at 215-854-5068