Created:Monday, January 14, 2013 3:31 p.m.CDT
Updated:Tuesday, January 15, 2013 12:36 a.m.CDT
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Prep Zone: Fitzgerald always had time for story

Elroy Fitzgerald, above, umpires at a Crystal Lake South game in the 1980s. Fitzgerald died at his home on Sunday. (Provided photo)

The conversations will be missed.

Like the ones on the sideline with the venerable official. During a game. In between plays.

Or while plays were taking place.

There were always conversations because Elroy Fitzgerald never met a stranger. Wherever he went, he’d be talking sports with someone … occasionally while he was supposed to be working.

“We were doing a freshman game at Marengo, and [former Marengo athletic director] Rod Poppe was running the clock for [then AD] Becky [Weinhandl],” said John Vito, a referee and Marengo resident. “Rod and Elroy started talking at halftime and we had to start the third quarter without Elroy. We blew through a couple minutes without him.”

The conversations will be missed.

Fitzgerald died at his home Sunday night. in Cary He was 83 years old. His wake will be held on Friday from 3 to 8 p.m. at Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Cary. The funeral service will be at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Algonquin at 11 a.m. Saturday.

Fitzgerald was the unofficial patriarch of McHenry County sports, a man who played sports, then officiated for 50-plus years in football, basketball and baseball. He was still officiating junior high school basketball games and was slated to work one at Algonquin Middle School on Monday, but had called over the weekend to cancel because of a cold.

“Fitz was a historical figure for Cary-Grove,” C-G AD Jim Altendorf said. “He was a fixture for Cary-Grove and a tremendous advocate for athletics. He just loved athletics. He’s a big reason why athletics have gone from being more of a rec thing to where they are today. He saw more of a role athletics could play in the educational environment.”

One of Fitzgerald’s three daughters, Linda Sanfilippo, said he was instrumental in pushing for girls sports in the 1970s. C-G gymnasium was named “Elroy Fitzgerald Gymnasium” about 10 years ago in his honor because of Fitzgerald’s contributions with community sports and as a school board member. How many people could ever say they refereeed basketball games in a gym bearing their name?

“He always joked that they named it after him and how he was glad they left ‘Memorial’ off the title,” said Doc Wolf, Fitzgerald’s friend and fellow official. “He was just a super guy.”

The news spread quickly, and hit hard, through officiating circles Monday.

“There aren’t many like him when you think of all the years he’s officiated,” said former Johnsburg AD Jim Meyers, who now referees football and basketball. “I go back to thinking when I was a batboy for the Johnsburg Tigers [semiprofessional baseball team] in the 1950s. Then, I saw him doing high schools in the 1960s, then when I was coaching in the 1970s. The number of lives he touched were endless. What a guy. It’s a total shock. It’s numbing.”

It almost goes without saying that Fitzgerald was old-school. He would arrive at baseball games and grab the 4-inch thick chest protector (worn outside his shirt) when he was calling the plate. Vito remembers how Fitzgerald’s ball and strike calls often came before the ball reached the plate, because that’s how umpires called them when he was learning.

Fitzgerald tried his best not to show his age, except when he told stories.

“If you walked into anywhere, somebody knew Elroy,” Vito said. “He’d always tell you a story or introduce you to a kid on a team who was third-generation in that family that he had officiated. He knew their grandfather and their father.”

Pat Fitzgerald, Elroy’s younger brother, talked to him Sunday morning as he usually does. Pat said Elroy felt like a cold was dragging him down.

“He said his right arm hurt like he’d been throwing a baseball,” Pat said. “He said he hadn’t been feeling good since about Thursday and had a cold. He didn’t think that much of it. He was hoping to be back on the court [officiating] by Wednesday or Thursday.”

Fitzgerald also worked a couple of days a week at Autotrol Corporation in Crystal Lake, where he had worked for many years as a tool and die maker. When he wasn’t officiating games, he was watching them. Often, the games involved one of his 16 grandchildren.

East Dundee resident Larry Freeman has officiated more than 40 years and frequently worked with Fitzgerald.

“I had breakfast with him and some other men on Christmas Eve,” Freeman said. “He was always enthusiastic. He was constantly involved in everything. I think his grandkids were his first love.”

Like most who knew him, Freeman remembers Fitzgerald’s gregarious nature.

“We’d be at halftime of a football game, ready to go back on the field and there was Elroy talking to people in the crowd,” Freeman said. “He knew everybody’s name. There was always something like that happening.”

Fitzgerald occasionally would officiate an Alden-Hebron football game on a Saturday. He would carry on a conversation between plays, telling stories about something that happened earlier in the week, even after the ball had been snapped.

He was one of a kind.

And if there is some small consolation here, Fitzgerald went on his terms. He never retired. He was doing what he loved until the very end. There is something almost comforting about that.

Still, the conversations will be missed.

Joe Stevenson is a senior sports writer for the Northwest Herald. He can be reached by email at joestevenson@shawmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @nwh_JoePrepZone.