After more than 40 years of officiating three sports, seasons tend to run together, so John Bell is slightly foggy on the exact year.
Bell, a former area referee who now lives in Missouri, thinks it was about 20 years ago when he was officiating a boys basketball game between Jacobs and Crystal Lake South. His partner, Elroy Fitzgerald, tossed a fan from the game.
Later, during a break in the action, Bell had a chance to ask Fitzgerald what the man had said to get the boot. “He called me an old goat,” Fitzgerald replied.
“I said, ‘Well …,’ ” Bell said. “He said, ‘You can call me that, but he can’t call me that.’ ”
The stories shared over the weekend about Fitzgerald, who was probably in his 60s at the time of Bell’s tale, were endless. The most revered man in McHenry County sports – a longtime official, fan, former school board member and all-around sports advocate – died Jan. 13 in his Cary home at the age of 83.
Family and countless friends, many of whom officiated with Fitzgerald or played in games he officiated, paid respects at his wake Friday at Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Cary or Saturday at his funeral at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Algonquin.
Fitzgerald still was officiating basketball games this winter and was scheduled to do some this week. When he died, the man so many knew mainly by his first name, still was doing what he loved. Bell probably worked more games with Fitzgerald – doing football, basketball and baseball – than anyone else. Fitzgerald truly was one of a kind.
“When we were younger, we did Cary-Grove’s very first freshman (football) game (in 1961),” Bell said. “They were playing Algonquin Middle School, that had its first freshman team. It was two new teams, two new coaches and two refs doing their first game. And the final score was 0-0.”
Bell and Fitzgerald spent a lot of nights together after that, although it would have been difficult to find one of the many officials at Friday’s wake who had not worked with Fitzgerald at one time.
“He was a mentor to us all,” said local official Rich Prykop, a member of Fitzgerald’s football crew. “When he told me I did a good job, I knew he really meant it. He didn’t say that to you after every game.”
Every few feet in the 11⁄2-hour-long line there would be someone wearing an IHSA official jacket. There were a multitude of plaques representing Fitzgerald’s honors, pictures from his service in the U.S. Army in the Korean War and hundreds of family photos of Fitzgerald, his four children, 17 grandchildren and his great-grandchildren. Several of his grandsons wore White Sox T-shirts under their sportcoats at Friday’s wake.
Fitzgerald was a member of the American Legion Post 276, served 28 years on the District 155 school board, started the Cary Youth Baseball Association in 1950 and was a huge advocate for girls sports in the 1970s.
Former Crystal Lake Central football coach Bill Mack was a sixth-grader when he met Fitzgerald, a man he considered a mentor. Fitzgerald coached Mack in baseball and basketball. Mack said Fitzgerald would call his mother to make sure he was practicing baseball.
“Nobody has ever been more giving to kids of himself than Elroy,” Mack said. “He was a wonderful, wonderful man.”
Mack went to breakfast with Fitzgerald and some other friends on Christmas Eve and did not get home until after noon.
“Cheryl [Mack’s wife] said, ‘Where have you been?’ ” Mack said. “I said, ‘Basically listening to Elroy have a good time.’ ”
It wasn’t just the old-timers. Fitzgerald knew everybody.
One of those at the wake Friday was Hampshire graduate Jake Goebbert, who played outfield in Double- and Triple-A last season in the Houston Astros’ system.
“I met him at one of our preseason scrimmages at Hampshire, and he was behind the plate when I had 19 strikeouts against Johnsburg,” Goebbert said. “He would stop by our (pumpkin) farm sometimes and talk to my dad. I stayed in touch with him a little bit.
“It’s sad. He was a great guy.”
Crystal Lake Central principal Steve Olson smiled while recalling how he met Fitzgerald. Olson was a first-year teacher at Crystal Lake South and coached sophomore basketball at Cary-Grove in 1985. Fitzgerald slapped Olson with a technical foul in that game, then Olson heard about it at school the next day.
“I see Pat (Fitzgerald, Elroy’s brother) at school the next day and he asked me about the technical,” Olson said. “I said, ‘How did you hear about that?’ He said, ‘My brother T’d you up. He’s on the school board.’ I thought, ‘Great, I’m one and done here.’ ”
Bell recalled another time when their football crew was doing a game in Elkhorn, Wis., in 1982, at the same time Milwaukee and St. Louis were playing in the World Series.
“There’s a TV in the concession stand and Elroy is telling everyone, “Hey, this guy here’s a Cardinals’ fan,’ ” Bell said. “He got hit really hard (during the football game) and it took him a while to get up. When we got in the van to come home, he just laid down in the back and didn’t even care if we went out to eat. I said, ‘That’s what you get for telling them I’m a Cardinals’ fan.’ We just had a lot of good times together.”
Even those who didn’t work with Fitzgerald enjoyed his company.
“I just liked watching a game with him,” local official Steve Bellmore said. “He’d always have stories for you. He’ll be missed.”
Fitzgerald had that way of brightening your day whenever you bumped into him. And you never knew where that might be. He seemed ubiquitous.
“Some people aren’t ever supposed to pass,” local umpire Jim Ayers said.
• Joe Stevenson is a senior sports writer for the Northwest Herald. He can be reached by email at email@example.com. You also can follow him on Twitter @nwh_JoePrepZone.