June 21, 2013
By JOE SMEKENS
for the News-Banner
When you’re doing the wash, do you put those black-and-white-striped referee shirts with the whites or with the dark clothes?
That’s a dilemma which has faced Luann Garton, Kathi Plummer and Susie Skiles for more than 100 combined years.
According to their spouses, the women have done so with smiles on their faces for the accumulated century.
That contention has not been confirmed by the wives, but there definitely is relief in sight for the fair sex.
Between them, Tony Garton, Bob Plummer and Steve Skiles have been officiating football, basketball and baseball games at various levels for a combined 131 years.
Garton did all three sports over a 50-year period before retiring at the end of last year’s high school football season. He did fill in for a couple of baseball games this spring while his buddy Plummer was recovering from surgery.
Plummer has been at it for 41 years and will officially toot his last whistle at the end of this year’s high school football season.
And Skiles, with 40 years under his belt and with his focus primarily on college basketball in the last 30 years, hopes to go a couple more years before leaving the court for the final time.
Garton and Skiles are Wells County natives and Plummer has spent most of his life here, graduating from Eastbrook in Grant County before coming here as an Indiana State Trooper. He is currently serving as Bluffton’s fire chief and top safety officer.
For many years, the three of them were on the same high school football crew until Skiles turned his focus to college basketball.
Garton retired from the football crew last fall and Plummer will depart this fall. Carrying on that crew will be three other local men, E.J. Carroll, Quinn Curry and Todd Morgan.
Tony, Steve and Bob all got their start officiating while they were in their teens at the sandlot and middle school levels and all three worked themselves up to the point where they have officiated games of state and national importance.
All three got involved as a way of earning a few extra bucks, but over the years, it’s not really been about the money anymore, although the money can be big at times.
“The first time I refereed basketball after getting my license, I got $7.50 for doing two middle school games,” Garton remembered. “And the last college game I officiated I was paid $750,” he noted.
Skiles also started out doing jayvee games but went on to national prominence in NCAA Division I games.
“The most I ever received for one game with stipends and travel compensation was about $2,800,” Skiles said.
“Tony was the person who got me started doing this,” Skiles said. “He gave me the initial fire to referee basketball. Then it was guys like Rex Decker, Jack Cross, Ed Shipley, Harry Anderson, Art Windmiller and Art Habegger, athletic directors and coaches who gave me a chance to officiate at their schools. If not for their support and confidence, my officiating career never would have happened.”
Skiles figures he has traveled more than a half-million miles since officiating his first Division I basketball game in 1982,
In December of 2011, he was diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus and missed the rest of that season. But Skiles has battled back and this past season worked 26 games, including 11 Division I games.
Prior to the cancer, he was working 55 to 65 basketball games per season. “I would like to work two more seasons and go out on my own terms, I know I can still do it. Wells County has been very supportive of my career. I know I am a lucky, lucky, lucky guy,” Skiles said.
But at the same time, he knows he earned everything that has come his way in officiating.
“My officiating success was accomplished personally. No one blazed a trail for me. There were no special favors,” he noted.
Skiles worked in nine NCAA tournaments, including four regionals, and he also did an NIT championship game. He cites perhaps the biggest game he ever officiated as a contest a few years back between Ohio State and Wisconsin when the Buckeyes were ranked No. 1 nationally and the Badgers were No. 2.
“It’s been a privilege to be involved in a sport in which I wasn’t really that good of an athlete in. It’s been a phenomenal run,” Skiles added.
Plummer, like Skiles, credits Garton for aiding him in his officiating career, especially in baseball and football.
“Tony has been very helpful in getting me where I am today,” Plummer said. “I worked with him a long time in football. And in baseball, Tom Neuenschwander has been a good partner,” Plummer noted.
Plummer credits noted officials Marty Burdette, Gene Linn and Jim Cox from Grant County as being instrumental in getting him started.
Plummer rates basketball as his favorite of the three sports, mostly because it’s played inside.
“In football, the season starts out in good weather and ends with tough conditions, while in baseball, it’s just the opposite,” Plummer noted.
Plummer is proud of the fact that he umpired at the high school baseball state finals on three different occasions. He also has one football state championship game to his credit and a semi-state game in basketball.
“It’s not about the money any more,” Plummer said of his long career in three sports. “I like to do it, and I want to be there for the kids,” he said.
“My first date with Kathi was a basketball game, and we came back from our honeymoon a day early so I could work a jayvee game. Needless to say, she’s been very supportive,” he noted.
Umpiring was Garton’s first love and at one time he considered pursuing a career in the Major Leagues. He gave up that idea, however, upon learning that most big league umps are traveling all the time and without much of a family life.
“Basketball became my favorite, partly because you are more a part of the game,” Garton said.
It really is a mutual admiration society between Garton, Skiles and Plummer as they all credit each other for their success.
“Steve was a big influence in me getting involved in basketball officiating,” Garton said.
“I coached for 12 years and then Steve encouraged me to get into college officiating. He’s really like a brother to me,” Garton said.
Tony rates one of his favorite experiences being the time that he, Steve and another local, J.D. Collins, worked as a team in a basketball game between Miami of Ohio and Ohio University. “They are huge rivals, and it was really fun doing that game together,” Garton said.
“I did a lot of traveling with college basketball and Luann couldn’t have been any more supportive. I brought home some nice checks and it enabled me to retire early because of officiating,” he added. “It helped me pay the mortgage, but I earned it, and along the way I’ve established many personal relationships. I’ve made friends all over the place,” Garton said.
“I take pride in where some of the big time referees are today because I had lots of them in training camps over the years,” Garton said.
Garton still remains active in officiating as an evaluator of college officials.
All three agree that “tough skin” is a necessary ingredient to be a ref or an umpire.
“You hear everything,” Skiles said of the fans at games. “Everyone at the game is there for a reason and has an opinion. We walk on the floor perfect and try to improve. I think most people in the know thought I was fair, even though they didn’t always agree.”
“Everyone is an expert,” Plummer mused. “But really, people don’t keep up with the rules. All fans have an opinion, that’s for sure. Referees get older every year, but the athletes don’t,” Plummer noted. “I try to make up for lack of speed and quickness with knowledge of the game,” Plummer said.
Garton, well-known for his affable personality, became a different, all-business person when he stepped on the field or court, according to his wife.
“The fans will always be prejudiced, but the coaches’ livelihood depends on the games. I always tried to do my best,” he said.
With 131 years of service between them, it’s apparent that all three of these whistle-blowers did their jobs well. υ