MIKE BURKE

Allegany Communications Sports

My memories of Joe Wolfe go all the way to the beginning – the beginning for me, that is. Thus, when I learned of his recent death it was with a great sense of melancholy and affection that I found myself in one of those wavy flashback-dream sequences that you see in the movies and don’t believe really happen until you reach your 60s and they begin to happen more and more frequently.

Joe, the nationally regarded rules interpreter of the International Association of Approved Basketball Officials, was a mainstay in our community and was loved and respected by everybody, and there was a very good reason for that – it seemed that Joe loved and respected everybody himself.

Joe Wolfe was a friend to our family and has essentially been part of our lives since the first day I can remember. For my brother and me, and for all of the children of all of our parents’ circle of friends, Joe was the lovable and favorite uncle. We loved all of our parents’ friends (oftentimes, we felt, more than we loved our parents), but Joe Wolfe was the one all of us were the happiest to see.

From the time I was a child to the very last time I saw him, Joe, no matter where we were, greeted me with the exaggerated baritone, “Buuuuurrrrrrke …” To which I responded, as a child, as a grown man, in my version of baritone, “Woolllllffffe …”

If you would like to read the nuts and bolts of Joe’s career in athletics and his love, devotion and skill of officiating, by all means read the outstanding reporting of Alex Rychwalski in Thursday’s Cumberland Times-News. Alex checked every box in his reporting and wrote a wonderful story of Joe and of his career.

Even in my 35-plus years as a sportswriter and sports editor of the Times-News, I could never keep up with Joe’s many accolades and honors, or his appointments to various positions, because they kept coming and Joe kept going; and he did so for the simple reason that he loved officiating and believed in its great importance and the rewards for all who were involved.

From the time he began officiating, Joe worked with and admired Cumberland officiating legend Clifton Van Roby. Van, he said, was the best official he ever saw.

He developed a long friendship and working relationship with National Hall of Fame basketball official Hank Nichols, the two of them often serving as national clinicians together. And he taught, trained and developed many great basketball officials, beginning on the grassroots level and fueling their rise all the way to the highest levels of college basketball.

A Saturday morning did not pass at the YMCA that Joe wasn’t at Church League Basketball games sharing his knowledge and passion. His prized students when I was a kid were Mark Paupe and Brian Long. As years passed they became the late Pat Connelley George Geatz, Grump Morgan, Gary Hauger and we could go on and on, because pretty much anybody who has ever officiated a basketball game in these parts fell under the tutelage, the watchful eye, the patience and the care of Joe Wolfe.

I have always been aware of his standing in the profession and his lifelong devotion to it, but Joe was always much more than all of that to our family. He was our lifelong friend.

The band of friends all grew up with each other, went to school with each other, raised their families at the same time and built homes in the same neighborhood – the corps group settling on the same street and block.

They were the White Avenue Gang, and they were Joe, Ronnie Cage, Roy Manges, Jim Eckard and George McGregor. They played softball together in the Rocking Chair League, they officiated together, they went to the track together, they drank beer together at the VFW or the Elks and they hosted parties at their homes with each other, highlighted by the annual Christmas Day Open House at Joe and Sue’s home on White Avenue.

The group of friends also included the Lattimers, the Longs, just two blocks away on Avondale Avenue, and the Burkes, the outliers on Kent, all the way on the other side of Fort Hill High School. What were we thinking?

(Actually, my father thought we should build on White Avenue ourselves; my mother thought otherwise. Colleen won.)

Most of them are gone now, but a time does not go by when I find myself thinking of those good gentlemen, their loving families, our friendships and times together that I am not warmly embraced by that wavy flashback-dream sequence that you see in the movies and don’t believe really happens until you reach your 60s and they happen more and more frequently.

Such good people. They worked hard in their lives and they experienced and shared the fruits and frustrations of their hard work with each other. They were always together, always there for and with each other. They genuinely loved and enjoyed each other. They lived life. They had fun. They were all different, and they were one.

Those were our Wonder Years and Joe Wolfe seemed to be the one who brought an extra dash of wonder to us with his easy manner, his kindness and humor, his care and friendship and his ability for making you feel as though you were the most important and interesting person in the room.

To know Joe Wolfe was to love him. I knew him my whole life.

Mike Burke writes about sports and other stuff for Allegany Communications. He began covering sports for the Prince George’s Sentinel in 1981 and joined the Cumberland Times-News sports staff in 1984, serving as sports editor for over 30 years. Contact him at [email protected] and [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBurkeMDT