Always looks to give back

Moments — one tragic — help define Stuart's two passions

Death of son, military experience lead Stuart down new roads
By Zack Miller | Aug 17, 2019
Photo by: Zack Miller Bill Stuart.

Tenants Harbor — Bill Stuart has lived an incredible life.

The 73-year-old Tenants Harbor resident is a face many recognize in the Maine sports world for his 28 years of officiating basketball, baseball and soccer at the youth and high school levels, but may be unaware of his remarkable, yet, tragic past.

Stuart, like so many, has experienced profound, life-altering moments. Ones that have shaped who he was, is and will become.

Loved one lost

Stuart's current hobby of officiating is something he did not have a large interest in in his younger years, but dabbled in the activity when his son played Little League baseball.

Then, in 1991, Stuart's world got turned upside down with the death of his son, William Walter, or Billy Jr.; B.J. for short.

“On the farm I worked on for 35 years we had a tractor that we plowed with,” said Stuart. “It was in the winter time, just before Christmas, and two days before B.J.’s [11th] birthday. I never let him on the tractor while I was working, but I’d give him rides when the bucket was up.

"We had a snowmobile and one of the skis came off. He comes running down the road and tells me the snowmobile is broken. He wants to ride up [on the tractor with me], but I tell him no. I decided to let him ride up, so I pick the plow up and he jumped on the tractor. I’m driving along and there was a little pile of snow in the road, and I dropped the bucket to push it off, but it was a rock, and the tractor fetched up and [B.J.] fell off the tractor.”

The tractor then struck and killed the young boy.

Before the accident, sports were a bonding experience for Stuart and B.J., as they frequently watched, played and attended sporting events.

“B.J. and I used to go to a lot of baseball and basketball games. Basketball particularly, I knew how to play, but not the rules,” said Stuart. “[B.J.] would get on the refs during the game, and when he passed away I said I’m going to get into [officiating] to see what’s it like."

New interest

Thus, Stuart’s sports officiating career — which included referring basketball, umpiring baseball and officiating soccer — took flight.

“Once I started digging into the rules, I was thinking back and said, ‘B.J. I’ll make you proud of me, and try to get every call correct,’ and he’s the reason I got into it, because he thought the referees were so horrible,” said Stuart.

During the beginning of his officiating career, Stuart learned quickly that you can’t make everyone happy.

“You do the best you can,” said Stuart. “A lot of people think refs are homers, but I swear to you that I would not do a game if I thought a guy was going to be favoring one team or the other. Every one of my colleagues makes mistakes, but they don’t make those mistakes to favor one team or the other. If I found that out, or thought that, I would get out of the profession immediately.

“We aren’t perfect. The first time I have a perfect game I’m going to quit, and I’ve been doing this for quite a few years and haven’t quit yet.”

Officiating requires thick skin, as each call will make one half of the bleachers and bench happy, while the other objects.

“It’s hard to keep your emotions down,” said Stuart. “You need to keep an even level when you’re refereeing. You can’t get excited, you can’t reply the same way [the fans or coaches] are treating you. You need to take it with a grain of salt. I love sports, and the people I work with, particularly the kids.”

“It’s better now, believe it or not,” said Stuart, in reference to spectators now versus back in the day. “When I first started out — and it could have been because I was bad, I don’t know — it was really horrible.

“[The schools] started Sports Done Right a few years ago, where they read off ‘let the kids play, let the coaches coach and let the referees ref’ and that has really helped. It could be because my hearing is bad and I don’t hear as much, but it really has gotten better, and Sports Done Right has been a big part of it. It’s calmed people down, but you still hear comments. I haven’t had anything directly said to me about bad calls.

"In the old days [people] would flail their hands up and throw things on the floor. Basketball has gotten better and the refereeing has gotten better. [In my opinion] Maine has [some] of the best refereeing overall in the U.S.

“There’s really not a lot of bad things as far as I’m concerned. Maybe every now and then you get fans that get a little rowdy, but you live with that because you know you’ve done your best and that’s all you need to know. I’m not saying I’m always right, but I at least try to do my best, and sometimes there are certain people who do not agree with you.”

Despite the badgering from spectators, Stuart said there is a lot of good that he experiences while on the fields and courts.

“I like the kids,” said Stuart. “Ninety-nine percent are great kids, and they always come up and say thank you. I get to see a lot of people I normally wouldn’t see. Camaraderie among the guys I work with is great. It’s a lot of fun, and not a dull job. There’s always something happening and you’re always trying to get the best game you possibly can. There’s a lot of good things about it, but the biggest is giving back, even though I’m getting paid, its nowhere’s near enough what I would make at my regular job. It’s to see the excitement at the end of the tournament games, and to see the kids with the smiles on their faces, [as well as] the kids that lose congratulate the winners.”

Despite being an official for three sports throughout the year, Stuart does not favor one sport more than another.

“I like all [the sports]. They are all different. They are all fun, different, interesting and exciting. I look at this way: first, I did it because of my son, and second, I get free exercise, I get paid and get to see some good games. Between soccer, basketball and baseball, I get all the exercise for nothing."

Military man

Before Stuart put a whistle in his mouth or an umpiring jersey on, he contributed to his community on a much larger scale, by serving in the U.S. Army, as he was stationed in Korea.

Stuart had expectations based on his background then, but, as he found out, expectations are one thing, and reality is another.

“I got drafted out of college and went to basic training at Fort Dixson,” said Stuart. “I thought, since I have an accounting degree from Thomas College, I was going down there for finance, but they had me in journalism. To be honest, without a dictionary, I can’t spell for crap.

“We went through a 12-week course, and supposedly it was equivalent to a journalism course from the University of Michigan [of Ann Arbor] journalism school. From there I went to Fort Benjamin Harrison in North Carolina and worked for The Paraglide, which is a newspaper down there. I worked for Stars and Stripes [newspaper] in Korea, and I was over there for 13 months. I had my own private car, wore civilian clothes, and developed all our own film.

“I was surprised [I was in journalism],” said Stuart. “I realized that’s what it was going to be, so I accepted it and went to the classes.

“It was interesting, because we not only had photography, but writing, and different classes on how to report on different aspects of the Army. At the end of the course we had our own team and had to produce our own newspaper. That was interesting, setting the columns up and the headlines. I don’t regret it [at all].

"When I got out of the Army I thought about being a reporter, but the pay sucked back then. I wasn’t disappointed, and looking back at it if I had gone into the finance [world] there would have been more opportunity money-wise when I got out of the Army, but things worked out."

Things did work out, as the unexpectedness of a journalism and photography course showed Stuart how much he enjoyed photography, as well as the work he did in Korea.

“I won the Golden Quill award for an article I wrote on discrimination in the Army,” said Stuart. “I got a certificate for that saying I excelled and my work was appreciated. I got comments on how great the article was, and I had a lot of black friends there too, and they thought I did a good job. That was back in the late-1960s, and there was still a lot of racial tension. When I first got over in Korea they had a racial riot in the seventh division, which I covered."

The original stories and photographs Stuart wrote and shot for the paper did not get to come home with him.

“Everything that I did for the [Stars and Stripes newspaper], stayed with the paper. I took a lot of [personal] outside shots of the [Korean] countryside and the people. I’ve got a whole scrapbook full of Korea photos. I had a 1965 Ford Fairlane 500 and wore civilian clothes (jacket and tie) [while overseas]. Back then there was a 10 p.m. curfew for Korea, but with my press pass I could go anywhere I wanted to go even after hours. I traveled all over [Korea]. I enjoyed every minute of it. I offered to re-enlist if they would keep me in Korea."

The Stars and Stripes newspaper Stuart worked for was one of many based around the world.

“There was European Stars and Stripes and Asian Stars and Stripes, they had all the bases in Japan, so we teletyped all our stories over to Japan. The newspaper included all the news about [President] Johnson and the Kennedys and stuff like that. It was distributed strictly for military purposes. I’m assuming Stars and Stripes was a universal military paper [that served all branches]. It wasn’t like being in the military. If I needed a helicopter for a story, I’d get a helicopter, fly down, do a story, and come back.”

The freedom of being a reporter and photographer in Korea really stuck out for Stuart, and was the aspect he enjoyed the most.

“I could take off for three or four days at a time,” said Stuart. “I could go to a military base and teletype things and send stuff back to the headquarters. I always wore civilian clothes and nobody questioned me on where I was going. We had a bureau chief, John Cutter I think his name was, and we had six guys in the office and secretaries that took care of stuff. It was really being like a civilian in Korea. They used to have war games, so I’d cover those, a lot of personal articles on individuals and how they like Korea. You found your own stories. I really had no restrictions on what we couldn't do. Occasionally, our bureau chief would send us out to cover something, but we mainly did human-interest stories.”

One story still sticks out to Stuart during his time in the Asian country, as he discovered the Korean culture, at the time, was much different than he was accustomed too in America.

“I did a story on an orphanage and the people who ran it,” said Stuart. “They were all Korean, [as well as] an American who was a supervisor, and some of the stories I heard about some of the kids being left there [were awful]. Females were disposable in Korean culture, at least back then. The males were the ones who were going to take care of the parents and come up through, so there was a lot of prostitution, a lot of girls were thrown out of the house, and they would go to these orphanages and grow up there. Korea was very poor back then. Seoul was a business city, and a lot of people stayed there, but [the orphanage] was sad.

"It made me feel good to be an American, because we don’t do that to our girls, and they are considered equals to us, but in Korea they were not equal. I don’t know if that’s changed or not, but that’s the way it used to be in the late-1960s and early-1970s. That really surprised me.”

Despite working for the newspaper for only 13 months, Stuart still enjoys photography, and has taken “thousands of photos."

Memories of B.J.

Stuart, whose adult daughters, Summer and Veronica, were standout student-athletes at the former Georges Valley High School and now coach middle school and youth basketball in Thomaston and St. George, has contributed much of his life to the sports community — and, like so many others locally, has donated hundreds of his officiating hours free to youth tournaments and fundraising events.

Through it all, he keeps his son in the forefront of his mind in the process.

“Five days before B.J. died he asked me: “Dad, what am I going to do if you ever die?” said Stuart. “I said, first of all you will be very, very sad and probably cry, but you will get over it because you know how much I love you and want you to do everything you can and be the perfect little boy. You will pick yourself back up and just remember that I’ll be thinking of you.

“After that, he died, and I took my own advice and I picked myself back up. I was sad, (and) I cried, and had some friends that came down and got me up and made me coffee.

"People thought I was nuts because I played racketball, and I had a racketball game the second week [after B.J. died] and people asked my why I was there. I told them my son would want me to be here, because this is what he would want me to do.

“I can’t stop living, because he wouldn’t want me to stop living. I can remember going to racketball games, and he’d knock on the window and say ‘you’re horrible.' "

"Every time I play racketball I see that little face there, and I’m sad he had to go, but life goes on, and I’m doing what I know he’d want me to do, and that’s be fair, honest, and contribute as much as I can. I know he would be proud of me.”

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