They call them as they see them, they are jeered more than cheered and a good night is having no one talk about you the next day. That is a volunteer sports official’s life and no one has done it more passionately than Sitka’s Lawrence “Woody” Widmark.
“In officiating if you are doing a good job they don’t see you,” Widmark said. “That’s what Perk (fellow Sitka official Keith Perkins) always says.”
At last weekend’s Alaska School Activities Association State Baseball Championships in Sitka, Widmark was honored with the ASAA Gold Lifetime Pass for his service to high school sports activities as a long-time sports official at the local, regional, and state tournament levels in the activities of volleyball, basketball, baseball and softball. The honor came with Perkins, Sitka athletic director Rich Krupa and ASAA executive director Billy Strickland in attendance, the Sitka Wolves baseball team and their opponents on the field, and the stands filled with fans.
“I thought it was just a local thing, to tell you the truth, what with the Sitka athletes and Krupa and Perk there,” Widmark said. “It floored me, it humbled me, it was bigger than I thought. I do things not to get recognized. It really surprised me. I was pretty emotional there for a while.”
The ASAA Board of Directors had unanimously voted for Widmark at their May meeting.
“He exemplifies what we hope ASAA stands for,” ASAA executive director Billy Strickland said. “His long-term commitment to officiating has been critical to allowing high schools, conferences and ASAA to provide opportunities for students to gain the lifetime benefits of participation in educational based activities.”
Widmark, 69, graduated from Sitka High School in 1971. He attended Sheldon Jackson College and the University of Montana, where he majored in forestry. He began officiating high school basketball in 1980 after returning to Sitka. He refereed over 35 years in that sport, achieving Region V tournament and ASAA tournament level selections, and some time on NAIA basketball courts. He was also officiating high school volleyball at that time, and was often called upon to be a main Region V tournament and ASAA state tournament official. He added high school baseball in 2007 and softball in 2010, and was a fixture at all the Region V tournaments. He was the home plate umpire for the ASAA state baseball championship at Sitka’s Moller Park a decade ago, and again on this year’s championship Saturday 4th/6th place game featuring Sitka and Eagle River.
Just as noteworthy is his umpiring career at all levels of Little League, which started in 1980 — a volunteer practice he continues today.
“Basically 43 years of being on a field or in a gym,” Widmark siad. “I want to retire, but they won’t let me. I’m just taking it a year at a time. I can still do some things. I’m sure my doctor likes that I am staying active. I have been blessed. Doing it for the kids and the sport too. If you respect the sport and come prepared like the kids, if I can do my best no matter if it is a JV game or middle school game or Little League game, just come and do my best for the kids. Of course not every official is correct and can get everything right, but we strive to do our best and be the best we can be.”
Widmark said some of his early highlights aren’t of games, but came before the games. When Little League youngsters asked if he was officiating and then whooped in delight when he said yes.
“That stuck with me over the years,” he said. “That kept me going. And after the kids got a little bit older they would remember me, and come to me and thank me. Those kids remembered the games, I didn’t remember the games, but they remember. The impact you might have on these kids make it all worthwhile, even from Sitka or out of town.”
Widmark has officiated across the Southeast Panhandle, from small villages to small towns, and on up north.
“The kids hooked me,” he said. “They enjoy it, they know I’m fair. That is important to me.”
Widmark also noted an incident he is embarrassed about, but one that involved his professionalism. He was selected to be the home plate umpire in his first baseball state tournament. Four officials from Southeast and four from Anchorage were among the crew.
“It was raining and raining and my glasses were fogged up,” he said. “It was wet and I was soaked.”
In that pregame, when coaches come to home plate and the umpire would normally ask if the lineup was correct, discuss ground rules and sportsmanship and basically go through the pregame checklist, Widmark had a different take.
“I couldn’t say anything,” he said. “I literally couldn’t say anything. What I said was literally, ‘blah, blah, blah…blah, blah, blah…’ I didn’t have any words. I was so filled with excitement and anxiety. The words that came out were actually ‘blah, blah, blah.’ I laugh at it now.”
When they broke from the plate everyone asked the officials’ coordinator if “Woody” was okay. They were assured he was and Widmark called a perfect game.
“I guess I got really excited,” he said. “They said I missed one call. I remember it. It was a judgment call on a ball or a strike and I called it a ball. Anyway, it was one of my better games. Even though it was inclement weather, it was a great game.”
Officials in various sports call Woody the “sponge” because of his ability to absorb information.
Keith Perkins, the president of the Sitka Referees Association, Region V officials coordinator and an assigner and crew chief for the ASAA state baseball tournament, noted Widmark’s commitment.
“We have weekly meetings for all high school sports he officiated or continues to officiate and he is committed to doing all the right things an official who rises to the top does,” Perkins said. “He studies the rules and the casebook. He studies the official manual for how to do it right. His successes are a reflection of that tenacious commitment to studying and learning properly how to be that official that coaches, players, fans and other officials know that when he walks on to the court or the field, the game will be taken care of.”
Widmark decided to become an official when he was a Little League coach and his three sons, Robert, Michael and Lester, were growing into the game.
“I thought I should learn the rules,” he said. “If I was going to be a coach and manager, I had better learn the game. And if I could teach the rules to the kids they would be better players.”
He doesn’t remember that first time donning umpire gear.
“I can’t remember yesterday,” he laughed. “It has just been a blur. Where do you start? I know you start somewhere, but I have really been blessed participating in these different sports. It has been quite a journey. I put a lot of hours on the fields. It was a love for the game, but more a love for the kids.”
“No regrets. You have to earn that respect from the coaches and players and parents. The main thing is I got my respect from the kids and that is all I wanted. I can’t do this forever, but I have had a pretty good deal on and off the field. I am not looking back. Like Lou Gehrig said, ‘I’m the luckiest guy on the face of the Earth.’”
Widmark noted that his sons, Robert and Michael, and his wife, Jeannie, have passed.
“They (sports officials) had asked my wife to volunteer as well, but she was adamant that I was doing enough for both of us,” Widmark said. “I had a lot of support at home. I could not have done this without family support. As many officials can’t.”
The ASAA Gold Lifetime Pass grants Woody and a guest complimentary admission to all ASAA-sanctioned high school interscholastic activities from the local through state tournament levels.
“I am getting a lot of inquiries from folks about who is going to be my guest,” Widmark said with a laugh. “Everybody is starting to become my friend now. All my friends are coming out of the woodwork that I never knew. Just kidding…I am still on cloud nine over this, and I can’t believe what just happened and having ASAA be a part of this, I can’t believe it. I am really honored in receiving this recognition. There are a lot of things involved…family support, school support, player support…obviously I couldn’t do it by myself.”
• Contact Klas Stolpe at Klas.Stolpe@juneauempire.com.