Launching Pad and Destination

November 30, 2012

By Rob Kaminski
MHSAA benchmarks editor

Lamont Simpson’s “home” is a place he visits twice a week during his peak season, when NCAA Division I officiating duties have him navigating the Midwest like a person in a race for frequent flyer miles.

His travels pale in comparison to Stacey Thomas, who has lived in Latvia, Turkey and Sweden thanks to the game of basketball.

Then there’s Jim Garofalo, who authored his own cheat sheets to assist with the eight different rules books which intertwined during a period of time in his hockey officiating career, which included a trip to the Olympic Games.

So, naturally, there’s Simpson officiating an MHSAA Pre-District Football Playoff game in Detroit last fall, taking a postgame earful from a father who believed his son was the subject of a cheap shot during the game.

There’s Thomas, blowing a whistle with teenagers at the Healthy Kids Club  in Detroit this summer

There’s Garofalo, ditching seven of the rules books over the last few years, and using only one now: the high school rules book.

It’s true that Simpson is at the pinnacle of his career, working Big Ten, Mid-American Conference and Horizon League men’s basketball, in addition to the WNBA in the summer, where he recently worked his eighth straight WNBA Finals.

And, yes, Thomas has her sights set on the NCAA Division I level and beyond, as her officiating career is still in its infancy.

Sure, Garofalo has achieved much on the ice both as an amateur and professional referee.

But, like so many in the officiating family, they deeply appreciate their roots and the people who helped them along the way. It’s a people business, first and foremost.

This week, continuing its "Making – and Answering – the Call" series, Second Half introduces Simpson, an officiating veteran of more than three decades. Profiles of Thomas and Garofalo will follow later this month. 

It's about patience and honesty

The late June heat at the Kensington Valley Golf Course doesn’t seem to bother Lamont Simpson. The secret to his cool aura lies in his hand, a golf ball which he has identified as “Ref” in permanent marker.

Simpson is indeed a ref – permanently – thanks to a suggestion from Robert Menafee during the late 1970s, and the 1977 Detroit Redford grad has been most comfortable in the heat of competition’s spotlight ever since.

“I was at a football game at Henry Ford a year or two after high school, and Mr. Menafee, my former coach, saw me and asked what I was doing,” Simpson recalled. “He said I should try officiating. That’s the first I’d ever thought about it.”

It would be the impetus to a craft that has consumed nearly 30 years of Simpson’s life, as he now jets around the country as a top-flight NCAA Men’s Basketball official, and one of the senior officials in the WNBA, where he recently called his eighth consecutive Finals.

For all of his accomplishments, Simpson can still recall with great detail various moments that led to his current standing; mental snapshots which help to explain why he still registers as an MHSAA football official each year, and why he gives so freely of himself to anyone interested in getting a start in officiating.

“I still remember my first game, thinking, ‘I can’t believe I’m doing this,’” Simpson recalled. “In my second year I did a PSL (Detroit Public School League) playoff game, and to this day, walking into that gym is still one of my most gratifying times. There were about two or three thousand people in the stands, and I remember the butterflies.”

Fast forward to the Pontiac Silverdome in November 1992. In the waning seconds of the MHSAA Class A Football Final, a pigskin floats in the air doing its best butterfly imitation. Following a double-reverse pass, the tipped ball is finally corralled by Muskegon Reeths-Puffer’s Stacey Starr at the 10-yard line and carried into the end zone to give his school a 21-18 win over Walled Lake Western in one of the most frenzied finishes in MHSAA Finals history.

Simpson had a good view of the moment.

“I was the back judge, working my first MHSAA Final. My first thought is to get in position and then, ‘Oh man, the ball is tipped,’” Simpson replays in his mind. “You’re part of a game-ending situation and you don’t want to screw it up. You almost become a fan in a game like that—a moment like that—but you’ve got your job to do. Afterward, when it was all over, I just remember thinking, ‘What a football game I got to be a part of.’”

Simpson would also get a shot as a Football Final referee in 2003, and worked the 1995 Boys Basketball Final which featured Flint Northern’s team led by future MSU Spartans Mateen Cleaves and Antonio Smith. But, Simpson remembers that game for a different reason.

“It was the last time that the Final was worked with a two-person crew.” Simpson said. “I remember the great athletes in the game, and being part of history as the last two-man crew in the Finals is something to be proud of.”

Simpson is quick to point out, however, that simply having what it takes to officiate an athletic event at any level is something of which to be most proud. While it’s natural for new officials to covet championship assignments and careers beyond the high school level, Simpson stresses patience, hard work, and – in many cases – honesty with one’s own performance as the most valuable traits an official can possess.

“I work and speak at a lot of camps, and I stress that people need to work at the craft – mechanics, rules, physical appearance – and above all have patience.” Simpson said. “The thing I see in younger officials now that is so different than when I was coming in, is they don’t have the patience; they don’t want to pay their dues.”

Sometimes, even the greatest amount of patience, perseverance and hard work isn’t enough. And, that’s where honesty in self-evaluation comes in. Yes, there are egos in officiating. To some extent, it’s a prerequisite. However, humility can also lead to finding a niche in the game.

Simpson himself is an example.

“My goal was to work in the NBA, but after seven years in the CBA, I realized that it probably wasn’t going to happen,” he said. “But, you know, there was still a lot of good basketball out there to work. When I left the CBA, I did so on my own terms, and went to work on my college career. So, sometimes you weigh your options and focus on the next goal.

“The point is, work at being the best at whatever level you work. I’ve seen guys spend a lot of money at the same camps year after year, and never get that college assignment,” Simpson said. “Maybe it’s time for them to focus on a different level.”

In that respect, the very thing that drives officials and gets them in the game in the first place can by the very thing that drives them out. Passion and drive, the need to reach the next level, can keep people focused in their chosen quest; the frustration of not advancing can also lead to their exit.

True, Simpson is one of 32 officials in the WNBA, and just worked his eighth WNBA Final. He has a full NCAA Division I men’s basketball schedule. But, the father of three grown children and grandfather of five cannot express enough the fringe benefits that officiating brings at any level.

“You become a better people person through officiating. Your communication skills are sharper,” he says. “Not only what to say and when to say it, but you learn to listen. You have to be a listener in this business, and that’s a great skill to have in life.”

It also provides the opportunity to be a teacher and recruiter. It’s one of the reasons he’s closing in on nearly three decades as an MHSAA registered official. What better way to pass the knowledge forward?

“No matter where you end up, always remember where you started, and keep your friends,” Simpson said. “I return every call, every text. I still talk to the same guys I grew up with. From an officiating standpoint if we could all just bring along one person at a time, think of the effect that would have.”

Simpson does more than his share, from speaking at camps and clinics – all voluntarily, mind you – to the behind the scenes recruitment, such as the time he surrendered all of his baseball umpiring equipment to a friend under the condition that person register with the MHSAA and begin working games.

He thinks back to the suggestion from Coach Menafee frequently. “Oh, all the time,” Simpson said. “I think of the places I’ve been, the things I’ve seen, the people I’ve met and the person I’ve become. This is what being an official does.”

There’s a scenario that Simpson replays time and again when he talks of officiating, and it doesn’t pertain to his collegiate or professional experience. In fact, it’s not even about basketball.

“It’s Friday night, and you’re working the big rivalry game between two communities. You get on the field, the bleachers are packed, the bands are playing, and you’re  right in the mix,” Simpson says with reverence. “That’s it right there. It doesn’t get much better than that. That’s it.”

PHOTO: Lamont Simpson officiates WNBA games during the summers, including this contest involving the Atlanta Dream and player Erika de Souza (14). 

NOTE: This is the fifth installment in the series "Making – and Answering – the Call" detailing the careers and service of MHSAA officials. Click the links below to view the others.

Hart Teammates Reunite After 80 Years as WWII Vets, Great-Grandfathers

By Tom Kendra
Special for

June 7, 2023

Walter “Stretch” Hansen and Harold Tate were good friends and high school basketball and baseball teammates at Hart High School, graduating in 1943.

West MichiganNo one could have guessed that less than two months after graduation (on July 2, 1943), the two friends would head to Fort Custer in Battle Creek, the first stop on their way overseas to fight for their country in World War II.

No one could have imagined how many twists and turns their lives would take over the next 80 years – from the battlefields in the South Pacific, then back to West Michigan where they both were married with children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and now Harold even has a great-great-grandchild.

And, certainly, no one would have believed that the two young boys from Hart – who forged a friendship through high school sports long before the days of computers, microwave ovens and cell phones – would still be alive at the age of 98 for an emotional reunion last month, on May 22, seeing each other for the first time in 80 years and, to cap it off, the reunion took place in their hometown of Hart.

“It was such a great day,” Hansen said about the meeting, which was set up by Muskegon-area World War II historian Richard Mullally.

“We picked right up, talking about sports and the service and everything else.”

The conversation came easy for the two old friends, who played for Hart during a “golden era” at the school – particularly in basketball, as the Pirates won 11 West Michigan Conference basketball titles between 1940 and 1954.

Hansen, left, and Tate reunite for the first time in 80 years on Monday, May 22, 2023, in their hometown of Hart. Perhaps the best team during that time period was Hansen and Tate’s as seniors in 1943. That team lost only once, to rival Scottville (31-25), but more than made up for it with an 80-10 trouncing of the Spartans in the final regular-season game.

Hart then crushed Scottville and Newaygo to win the District championship, only to have Michigan’s prep basketball season stopped abruptly at that point because of World War II.

That 1943 team featured four starters over 6-0, led by the duo of Hansen and Stan Kapulak (both 6-6), Joe Mack (6-2), Lyle Burmeister (6-1) and Stanley Riley (the lone starter under 6-foot at 5-11).

“The newspapers called us ‘The Hart Skyscrapers,’” said Hansen, who will be 99 on Nov. 6. “We were taller than most college teams at that time.”

Hansen and Tate’s friendship continued to blossom on the baseball field, only to have their lives turned upside down shortly after graduation 80 years ago, when all Hart senior boys who had been drafted headed to Battle Creek as a brief staging area on their way to the battlefields of Europe and the South Pacific.

Hansen served in the Army Specialized Training Program and was part of the 52nd Signal Battalion and the 4025th Signal Battalion in the Pacific Theater.

“I had an all-expense paid tour of the South Pacific,” Hansen said with a chuckle. “The Philippines, New Guinea, Okinawa, Hawaii, all over the place.”

Tate did his service in the 24th Infantry Division and the 19th Infantry Regiment, and was stationed in Japan.

During their visit last month, Harold showed off the Japanese Samurai sword and Arisaka rifle which he had sent back from Japan to Hart. The week after their visit, both took part in Memorial Day parades – Hansen in the Lakeside parade in Muskegon and Tate in his 77th Memorial Day service in Hart.

Hansen, who still has a home on a small lake in Holton and lives at a senior care facility in Muskegon, played many years of semi-pro basketball and did some coaching. He worked at GTE and has five children and 10 grandchildren.

Hansen served from 1943 to 1946 as a Sergeant in the Pacific Theater during World War II. Tate served from 1945 to 1946 as a Platoon Sergeant in the Pacific Theater during World War II.“I have been so blessed,” Hansen said, sorting through one of his many scrapbooks. “All five of my kids are great and I have grandkids that are just amazing, everything they are doing. I don’t even know all of their names, but it’s sure been fun watching them.”

Tate returned to Hart after his military service and has been there ever since, at first working as a carpenter with his father and then becoming a rural mail carrier for the U.S. Postal Service, retiring 26 years ago at the age of 72. He has lived in the same home for 75 years and has three children, six grandchildren, seven great-grandkids and now one great-great-grandchild.

Tate laments the demise of his beloved American Legion post in Hart, a town with just over 2,000 residents, as the number of members has steadily declined.

One topic that brings a smile to both of their faces is the recent resurgence of the Hart High School athletic program, which drew media attention not too many years ago for all the wrong reasons – notably a football program which went 24 years without a winning record.

That string was snapped with a 6-3 mark and the school’s first earned playoff appearance last fall.

But that was just the start.

This winter, Hart’s boys basketball team finished the regular season 22-0, the girls basketball team made it to the Division 3 Semifinals at the Breslin Center, wrestling qualified for the Team Finals for the fourth-straight year and competitive cheer placed fourth in Division 4. This spring, the Hart girls track & field team won its second-straight Division 3 Finals team title, and the boys placed fourth.

“It’s a great place to call home, a great place to live, always has been,” said Hansen of his hometown, which got its name from its central position in the “heart” of Oceana County.

And who would have imagined that these two high school teammates could still come home again for a reunion at the age of 98?

Tom KendraTom Kendra worked 23 years at The Muskegon Chronicle, including five as assistant sports editor and the final six as sports editor through 2011. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Muskegon, Oceana, Mason, Lake, Oceola, Mecosta and Newaygo counties.

PHOTOS (Top) Members of the 1943 Hart High School varsity baseball team gather together, preparing for a team photo. Among those are Harold Gayle Tate (far left) and Walter "Stretch" Hansen, at 6-6 the tallest player in the back row. (Middle) Hansen, left, and Tate reunite for the first time in 80 years on Monday, May 22, 2023, in their hometown of Hart. (Below) Hansen served from 1943 to 1946 as a Sergeant in the Pacific Theater during World War II. Tate served from 1945 to 1946 as a Platoon Sergeant in the Pacific Theater during World War II. (Top photo courtesy of Stretch Hansen. Middle and below photos courtesy of Richard Mullally.)