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Flashback Friday: The Ridgeley Blackhawks, Circleville, and no referees in sight

Staff Writer
Mineral Daily News-Tribune
Referees are pictured at a 2020 playoff contest. It was a much different group from the volunteers assembled to referee a 1958 contest between Ridgeley and Circleville.

By Chapin Jewell

Tribune Correspondent

Setting the scene. Imagine it is Sep. 12, 1958, you’re Coach Tom O’Connor of the Ridgeley Blackhawks, and you’ve just made the long trek from the northern tip of Mineral County all the way down to Circleville. Expecting of course, that upon your arrival in Pendleton County, your Ridgeley 11 will take to the field against the Circleville 11.

You’ve endured a few-hour-long bus ride, caught a glimpse of the beautiful Seneca Rocks just before arriving in Circleville, then finally you arrive, ready to take to the gridiron. But there’s a problem.  The host Circleville team is assembled, as are their coaches, fans, etc. The Ridgeley Blackhawks, coaches and fans had arrived as well, all were assembled, except the pinstripes.

That’s right, come kickoff time, the only thing missing were the officials for this Potomac Valley Conference clash. Circleville’s coach, Guy Propst, took full responsibility for the mix-up, explaining that he thought he had the matter squared away, but alas, he hadn’t.

This is just one of the interesting, fascinating, and quite honestly funny stories told within the pages of the scrapbooks of Keyser native Tom O’Connor. This story is chronicled by local sportswriting legend J. Suter Kegg in his column of the day.

To this point, the story reads more like a tragedy or disappointment than it does a comedy. Long bus ride, everyone assembled, no officials anywhere in site, the game would have to be cancelled, right? Wrong.

It was 1958, and this was an America, a West Virgnia, and a high school sports world that was not yet in the tight grips of a litigious society in which liability concerns, and not just common sense ruled the day.  

In 1958, you could still make a sensible, spur of the moment decision and not have to worry about losing all your possessions and your job to a lawsuit from an angry parent.  And that’s exactly how this situation was resolved, with common sense and not liability concerns dictating how things would pan out.

So, how was the situation resolved? Well, for starters, Coach O’Connor of Ridgeley and Coach Propst of Circleville were in full agreement that the game should still be played. The host went a step further and said he would be fine with having Ridgeley assistant coach Ed “Barney” Tucker serve as the referee.  

Tucker of course, objected, citing the fact that he had never once served a a referee in his life. He was overruled, however, and was declared the head referee.

One down, two to go. Next came the search for an umpire. It was Circleville’s suggestion that since the problem of no officials rested solely on their soldiers, that Ridgeley furnish all three officials from their travelling group. O’Connor refused, however, declaring that it just simply would not look right, and insisted that someone from Circleville be tapped as the umpire.

There came an agreement that Bardon “Buck” Harper, the father of Circleville quarterback Joe Harper, would be the logical choice. The senior Harper had been a star player at Potomac State College and upon graduation, had even coached for a time at Green Bank High School. Harper of course protested, citing that despite his prior playing and coaching experience, he really hadn’t kept up with the rule changes and such. Like the Ridgeley assistant, Harper was overruled and now two of the three slots were filled;  all that was needed now was a head linesman.

This is where the story takes an even more interesting turn. Just as the two coaches were scratching their heads searching for a third referee, a volunteer stepped up, and this time, from the bus driver ranks.

That’s right, Ridgeley’s bus driver, Sylvester “Vestie” Martin, volunteered his services. Martin was clear in that he didn’t understand the bulk of the rules but thought for certain he could pick out the offsides violations. “You’re hired,” was the response.

So there they were, a Ridgeley assistant coach, the father of the Circleville quarterback, and the Ridgeley bus driver, all assembled to save the day and serve as the game officials.

Most certainly not a single of them had undergone an extensive, computer-based background check. No doubt none of them had attended the various clinics to stay afresh with the National High School Federation rule changes, or attended a symposium on concussion protocol. Not a single name had been run through a board of education meeting or had the principal’s signature attached.  

They were three guys, in the right place, in the right time, and most importantly in a time and place when common sense, and not the fear of lawsuits and liability, prevailed.

They managed the game fine. Maybe at times they looked a bit like the basketball crew that officiated the West Virginia/Gonzaga game Wednesday night, maybe they didn’t. In fact, no doubt they looked better. The point is, they managed the game, the kids played, and at the end of the day, it was not a wasted, fruitless, or disappointing trip for the Blackhawks.

When the dust settled, and the Ridgeley boys boarded head linesman Vestie Martin’s bus back to Mineral County, they did so as 38-12 victors over Circleville, en route to a successful 6-3 season.

Bill Scott scored on pass plays of 30 and 40 yards, and Charles Fryer, Robert Collins, Frank Lambert and Dave Imes each scored touchdowns for the Blackhawks as well.  Circleville quarterback Joe Harper (the umpire’s son), and Larry Arbaugh scored for Circleville.

On Sep. 12, 1958, common sense prevailed, and a solution was found that benefited everyone. In those days, you could do that. You couldn’t do that now.