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Old Tue Mar 08, 2005, 12:14am
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Like I said, great story!

It's busy, but for Hightower, "life is good"
By Vahe Gregorian
Of the (STL) Post-Dispatch

Ed Hightower calls a foul on Colorado's Marcus King-Stockton in a game last week between Missouri and Colorado in Columbia. Hightower has drawn acclaim as an educator and as a basketball referee.
(Chris Detrick)

As he hurries from the building, Ed Hightower catches the predictable heckling: Maybe he should look into getting a new prescription for his glasses, it's proposed, as he squints at a note.

Such comments are an occupational hazard in his chosen field, so Hightower can shrug and laugh them off.

Yet this teasing isn't from one of the thousands of college basketball fans who have seen Hightower elegantly officiate games at any of dozens of arenas over the last quarter-century.

Instead, it's coming from his playful staff at the Edwardsville School District, where superintendent Hightower presides over a $55 million budget, 7,000 students and 900 employees.

"They know I like big print," Hightower said, laughing and shaking his head, as he opened the door to his Lincoln Town Car to begin driving to a game in Columbia, Mo., last week.

This whirlwind schedule is merely a way of life for Hightower, and he flourishes in each role.

While he is most visible as a referee who has worked nine Final Fours - and surely will be considered to work this year's event April 2-4 at the Edward Jones Dome - that is not Hightower's higher passion.

"Education," he says, "is truly my calling."

Two weeks ago, the Edwardsville School Board extended his contract three years to 2010. In his ninth year on the job, Hightower, 53, was acclaimed by the district for navigating it through budget deficits and whopping growth.

"It's always a juggling act," Hightower says.

He was referring to his superintendent's job, but the words are an apt description of what Hightower does to make his vocation mesh with an avocation that takes him to games around the nation four or five times a week. Occasionally, he is flown to and fro by a pilot friend to minimize time away from Edwardsville.

A cell phone existence

Not five minutes into the drive south on Illinois 157, Hightower's cell phone hums for the first of dozens of times over the next 10 hours. With the exception of a three-hour span before and during the Colorado-Missouri game at Mizzou Sports Arena, Hightower is wired, if not melded, to the phone virtually constantly - dictating letters, rendering decisions and keeping apprised of messages and e-mails. Answering the phone, his first words almost invariably are, "Life is good. Life is very good."

It's not a new term for Hightower, but he has been saying it with extra vigor since last summer, when he was diagnosed with endocarditis - a bacterial illness that was corroding his heart's inner lining. What began with headaches and his neck "pretty much frozen" led to open-heart surgery at Barnes-Jewish Hospital on July 21 to "shave off the bacteria."

"Your life somewhat flashes in front of you, and you start to reflect on things," says Hightower, who asked himself at the time, "Have I been the type of person who warrants a second chance?"

Twelve days later, Hightower was back to work, reinvigorated by a new perspective on life. Sort of.

"To be able to return to my work schedule - you just don't appreciate what a great feeling it is," he says.

A mother's influence

When Hightower's lunch destination turns out to be closed, he rules promptly: Move on to the St. Louis Airport Marriott, where he picks up the other members of the day's officiating crew, veterans Steve Welmer and Steve Olson. Food can wait, and besides, that's why he brings along a teeming basket of snacks, including pretzels, M&Ms and bananas.

Over rare moments between calls, Hightower reflects on the influence of his mother, Daise, a single mother who raised eight children, first picking cotton - with the help of her children - in Gobler, Mo., then working at Olin Corp. in Alton.

"She established that you will get out of life proportionately what you put into life," Hightower says, wagging a pretzel stick. "If you expect to get a lot out of life, then give a lot to life and to other people. Treat people like you want to be treated."

Hightower's mother, 74, also established that "you will get an education."

And so he did, attending Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where a knee injury ended his basketball career but didn't douse the interest in officiating he developed by refereeing SIUE intramural games for $1.25 an hour. As he worked toward his master's degree (and later his doctorate) and became an elementary school principal, Hightower officiated high school and junior college games before being hired by the Missouri Valley Conference in 1980.

Eight years later, he had distinguished himself enough to work his first of five successive Final Fours, punctuated by the Kansas-Oklahoma title game in Kansas City. Soon, he was offered National Basketball Association officiating jobs but declined because they would have taken him from school administration.

"It was not a choice. It was not even a hesitation," he says, adding, "Refereeing is not a priority in my life. I enjoy it, I love it, but it's not something I have to have."

Whether Hightower will officiate at this year's Final Four won't be known until the Monday before. Numerous variables will be at play. Because his primary conference is the Big Ten, for instance, Hightower may be excluded if the top-ranked University of Illinois team reaches St. Louis.

Men of judgment

As Hightower nears picking up Welmer and Olson, he speaks with admiration of their business careers. Olson is a sales consultant who travels internationally, and Welmer is a partner in a number of businesses.

"They're decision-makers. They live it every day," he says. "They have to make those quick judgments, where you don't have the instant replay in front of you."

Welmer of Bradenton, Fla., and Olson of Madison, Wis., greet Hightower warmly. Their affection is made further obvious from the steady tweaking of each other along the way. Love of the game, the chance to work with athletes and bonding with each other are among the reasons they extend and expend themselves this way. Each sees his role more as nurturing a game than imposing his will upon it.

"Blowing the whistle really is kind of a last resort," says the 6-foot-10 Welmer, who played on a Division II national title team at Evansville.

None considers officiating the top priority in his life. But hobby isn't quite the word for what they do, either, not with millions of dollars at stake for schools and coaches and potential livelihoods in the balance for players.

"It's a little more serious than building a paper airplane," Olson jokes.

To them, perhaps the game's most serious issue today is fan behavior. Olson says the climate can be like "40 minutes of adult day care." All three cringe at things they've heard parents scream with children alongside and are alarmed at the increasingly menacing behavior they see.

"It's a vicious tone," says Olson, who believes increased security is essential. "It's ridiculous. Do you go to work and act like this? Do you go home and act like this?"

A daughter's taunts

After about 20 minutes of twirling his cell phone about to get better reception as he drives, leaving Welmer and Olson harassing him about his driving, shortly after 3 p.m. Hightower pulls off Interstate 70 in Columbia and stops at a Steak 'n Shake for a nibble.

Moments later, his vivacious daughter, Jennifer, a senior at Mizzou, joins the group and hugs Welmer - "Uncle Steve!" - before greeting her father. Hightower can only roll his eyes and smile as she torments him about her need for cash, his lack of "cool points" and his obsession with westerns and James Bond movies.

To hear him tell it, though, his jurisdiction ends at the remote control, and the home always has been run by Jennifer, older sister Julie and wife Barbara.

"They just tell me to check it at the door," he says, laughing.

On the way to the arena, Jennifer says she has developed a sense of humor about abuse from the stands of her father, who is oblivious to the story.

"I wish we could get him off that phone," Jennifer says.

Setting a game plan

Forty-five minutes before tip-off, with nearly 70 years of Division I officiating experience among them, Hightower, Welmer and Olson aren't quite tense. But their tone is measured as they dress for the game and anticipate the night ahead.

As Olson shines his shoes, Welmer notes that Colorado will be missing four players suspended for a curfew violation. With that, Hightower adds that coaches and players for both teams may have a low threshold of tolerance given their disappointing seasons.

"Let's give them a little leeway," Hightower says. "Let's work with them, but let's not let them embarrass us."

Before they adjourn, they discuss several complicated scenarios that have played out in recent games. They remind each other that talking through unclear situations before ruling is crucial - and that equity in similar circumstances at each end of the court is vital.

"They may say we kicked (two calls)," Welmer says, "but the bottom line is if we call them both the same way they can't say we're not consistent."

In control

The choppy, ragged game is an exercise in restraint for the officials, who hear little from the two-thirds full and largely disengaged stands. Enough fouls (43) are called to keep the teams honest and tempers tame, but plenty more could have been whistled. Each official seems to spend more time talking to players and coaches than dictating to them.

"You're better off if you don't have to get to the point where you have to punish unnecessarily," Hightower says after the game, back in his business suit behind the wheel on the way home.

With just under 12 minutes left in Mizzou's 63-54 victory, Welmer seems certain to smack Colorado coach Ricardo Patton with a technical foul after Patton erupts over a call. Welmer tries to pacify Patton, but Patton persists - even as Welmer puts whistle to mouth and readies to signal "T."

Finally, Patton relents. Moments later, he puts his arm around Welmer and apologizes. Welmer staying calm, his partners say, diffused the situation.

The three are exhilarated after the game, razzing each other more animatedly than before and basking in the excitement of even this sloppy, mundane affair. Another night among brothers, steeped in the camaraderie and privilege of the profession.

"Are we lucky, or what?" Olson says.

As Hightower continues his berserk phone work, which he began anew before he even left the locker room, Olson and Welmer cut up in the back seat as they chat by cell phone with officials who worked other games. When Hightower parts with them at the Airport Marriott around 10 p.m., they exchange fond farewells but know they will see each other again in days as parts of other crews.

But as Hightower returns to Edwardsville, he is mindful only of preparing for the next day of work and a Friday trip to Springfield for a meeting with the Governor's Task Force on Education. He is bursting to get to the office at 6:30 the next morning.

"I get turned on about education," he says. "A light comes on."

As he pulls up to his office around 11 p.m., Hightower gets out of his car to bid goodnight. Then he steps into his office to gather some late-night reading material, presumably with big print.

Influencing students

A week later, Hightower answers his phone and says, "Life is good." Since that Mizzou game, he has officiated three more and is readying for a fourth, Indiana at Wisconsin, on Tuesday night.

Before he left for Madison on Tuesday, Hightower visited Edwardsville High to spend an hour with 10 students he felt "can do better."

"I shared with them that I made mistakes in life and will continue to make mistakes," he said. "But when they see me on television and see me around school as the superintendent, know that it was education that got me to this place. . . . Education is the core of making that dream.

"And you know when you've got those kids, you know when it's soaking in: When I got finished talking, each of those kids got up and shook my hand and said, 'Thank you for what you just said.'

"You never know when that light bulb is going to come on," he added, "but if you stay the course, chances are you're going to see the rewards of that work."
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Old Wed Mar 09, 2005, 12:46pm
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Awesome story about the man. It has shown me some more light and understanding as to why Ed works the schedule he does year after year.
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Old Wed Mar 09, 2005, 01:04pm
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That was an excellent piece. Thanks for sharing it.
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Old Wed Mar 09, 2005, 02:48pm
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No problem. I really enjoyed it too...and I thought I had a busy schedule!
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