Making the right call: Former teacher and pastor reflects on his 50 years as a sports official

Recognized for his 50 years as a sports official ... Waukon Middle School Assistant Principal and Activities Director Jennifer Garin shakes the hand of former Waukon resident Tom Buresh as she recognizes him for his 50-year anniversary of becoming an Iowa high school and middle school sports official. Buresh was recognized during an eighth grade boys basketball game in the Waukon Middle School gym between Waukon and Decorah in mid-January, with that middle school level being his most favorite at this point in his career, as it allows him to share his experience and knowledge with younger officials. Standard photo by Joe Moses.

Calling it like he sees it for 50 years ... Former Waukon resident Tom Buresh keeps a watchful eye on the action in a mid-January eighth grade boys basketball game between Waukon and Decorah at the Waukon Middle School gym. Buresh is celebrating 50 years as a sports official for high school and middle school sports this year. Standard photo by Joe Moses.

by David M. Johnson

In society there are rules, statutes and regulations that ensure an orderly and well governed direction for day-to-day experiences. To enforce and interpret the law, society has police officials, judges and inspectors who are just some of those employed to make sure those guiding principles are being enforced.

In sports, whether it is little league, middle school, high school, college or the professional ranks, there are those men and women in “stripes” or “blue” - as they are often referred to - who stand behind the plate calling balls and strikes, who whistle fouls on a player defending under the basket, or who watch that football offensive lineman to ensure he is using a legal blocking technique. Umpires and referees are indispensable, otherwise there would be mayhem on the courts and fields they preside over.

These guys and gals receive abuse and praise, but why do they do it? Is it the pay? Were they former athletes who wanted to still be involved in one way or another? Is it the challenges that entice them?

A person may just as easily know them as a friend, neighbor or member of the family or community. In the local community there is one individual who many have come to know as a teacher and a pastor, but they may not know that he is a referee, and has now served in that capacity for 50 years.
Tom Buresh, on appearance, might not come across as that guy who will throw the yellow flag or blow the whistle to control activities in a game situation. Not only has he done that, but he says has enjoyed doing it for the past 50 years.

Along with officiating athletic contests, Buresh has also had a career as a school teacher - now retired, was a minister for two Presbyterian churches - most recently in the Waukon area, plus enjoyed marriage and raised a family as well. Just reading about his lifetime resumé would tire most people, but he has lived it and done it for a span of five decades.

Growing up on an Iowa farm instilled early discipline that carried Buresh into his academic experiences at Iowa State University after graduating from Riceville High School. In college, he took a course his freshman year to certify as an official. With the dichotomy of making money as a college student and being involved with sports he enjoyed, this young freshman became immersed into the realm of “making the call.”

Receiving his “stripes,” Buresh would go on to officiate over the years games of softball, baseball, football, volleyball and basketball at the middle school and high school level. Over the course of the past 50 years, basketball and volleyball became the two dominate sporting events requiring his attention.

This sports official not only would referee a game, but he could also be found on the other side of the spectrum. For 33 years, Buresh both officiated and was a coach and teacher in the North Fayette Community School District in West Union. He feels this gave valuable insight and assistance as he witnessed and experienced “both sides of the ball.” As a middle school math teacher, the connection to the student population followed into sports when he coached and would give the added perspective when he would officiate a game.

When Buresh retired as a teacher after 33 years, he started a second career as a pastor and served both the Zalmona and Rossville Presbyterian Churches, and he also continued as a sports referee. Through this time he and his wife, Connie, were making a successful marriage and raised three children.

When asked if it was difficult to juggle family, career and going to numerous games to officiate, Buresh reflected on this past experience and commented that, “Of course, any married official has to have support from his wife as I was gone many nights away from family, and I thank my wife, Connie, for all her support over the years.”

While at West Union, Buresh missed some of his own children’s games but made it a priority to see as many as possible. When his son played football his junior and senior years in high school, Buresh did not work football games but enjoyed his son’s success, especially as the football team won the Class 2A State Football Championship his senior year.

There were obviously the negatives of trying to juggle both family and a career and time spent as a referee, especially getting home late after the game and having to deal with an Iowa winter. But, the positive interaction with the people involved with sporting events and the satisfaction that comes with doing a good job, coupled with support from family, was always seen as a major positive by Buresh.

Did he receive the abuse that is all too often part of the officiating landscape? “I would guess I officiated well over 1,000 contests through the years and only really remember three bad confrontations with a parent. So, in general, they may yell but after the game is over, their life and mine goes on,” remembers Buresh.

When officiating, he says his concentration on the game was so intense he would “zone out” the crowd. Buresh says his time as a coach actually caused more consternation with parents and fans than his time spent as a referee.

Buresh wanted to share one experience he had as a referee, and it dealt with a game where he called a foul just before the ending buzzer.  The player made both free throws to win the game with no time left on the clock. As the officiating crew made it back to the locker room, the losing coach followed and berated both the referee and the call. The athletic director entered the fray and interceded and quickly escorted the coach out.

As Buresh and his partner sat talking following the game, there was a knock on the door. Two players from the losing team were waiting at the door and proceeded to enter the room when invited in. These were players for the losing coach who moments before had been screaming at Buresh, so he did not know what to expect. The two began by telling him that it was the best officiated basketball game they had played in that year. They continued by telling him that the call at the end of the game was the right call and thanked the two referees for being officials.

Buresh believes, from this experience and others throughout the years, that if the kids were allowed to just play the game without the interference from the adults, the kids would do so much better. It is this interaction and experience with the kids - the athletes, that Buresh said has made it so enjoyable being a referee, especially witnessing how these kids would grow on and off the court into their adult lives.

It is experiences such as these that influence and encourage Buresh when he begins to have self-doubts on whether to continue or retire as a referee. He also reflects on the importance of a referee and the responsibilities expected of them.

Is there something that he would like to see changed or something that might enhance the interaction and involvement of officials and the game that requires officiating? “I would like to see young officials getting more help in learning how to officiate. They can learn the rules and pass a test, which is all they have to do to be certified, but calling a game when you have 10 kids running up and down the court in basketball is another thing.  That is partly why I have mainly worked middle school the last few years, to try to help beginning officials out.  Maybe the State Association could find a way to help more as well,” suggested Buresh.

His best advice would be the beginning official would find someone to work with that has accumulated a number of years being a referee. Another suggestion is observing a veteran referee officiating a game and not to be afraid to ask any questions to gain more knowledge.

This veteran official feels anyone can be an official if they have a passion for working with kids and are willing to learn the rules. For certain sports, like basketball and football, an individual has to be in decent physical condition so to be able to run up and down the court or the football field.

Besides the numerous acquaintances and friendships that have become part of Buresh’s lifelong experiences, he has also had the pleasure of officiating in the volleyball State Championships. The memories of the years of officiating amaze Buresh at times and he is thankful for these experiences as he feels the years traveling the state as a sports official has allowed him to meet a large number of people he might otherwise not have met if not for being an official.

He has witnessed changes, possibly the biggest being in volleyball and basketball. He believes from his observations that the games are officiated much looser than in years past. He has seen fewer calls for how players contact the volleyball illegally and basketball has become a much more physical game over the years with more contact between players being allowed.

After all the years at sporting events as a coach, referee and a father of athletes, Buresh’s parting advice is that coaches, players, parents and the fans make an attempt to learn the rules and regulations. If there are any questions, don’t be afraid to ask questions of the official in a positive manner. Buresh feels a strong knowledge of the rules added to the knowledge on how the game is to be played will allow an individual to enjoy his or her experience at the next sporting event.

Buresh is proud of his many accomplishments as a teacher, coach, pastor, sports official, husband and father.   He is grateful for having the opportunity to have provided service to his community.

After many years of teaching, ministering to a receptive flock and spending time at numerous sporting events, Buresh and his wife are ready to begin a new adventure. With his wife’s gardening and knitting and his own love of hunting, fishing and golfing, this couple is preparing for even more of life’s journeys, which will include a shared love for travel and spending time with their 10 grandchildren.

No matter what those journeys in life may bring, much as he has done his entire life whether on or off the playing field, Buresh will continue to strive to “make the right call.”

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