Don Rose attended a lot of high school football games as a spectator in his younger years. Rose, an athlete during his years at Bay City Central High School, enjoyed keeping up with the local sports scene while hanging out with his friends.
His wife, Charlotte, didn’t mind, but she offered a suggestion that – unbeknownst to either of them – would have a lasting impact.
“She was always after me,” said Rose. “She said that if I’m going to be gone all the time on Friday night I might as well make a few pennies while I’m doing it.”
Those “pennies” would come from serving as a football official, something Rose never considered doing before. But after some more prodding from his wife, he gave it some serious thought. The thought turned to action.
“I figured, ‘Why not?’” he said. “Finally, I got ahold of Larry Scott of the Bay City Officials Association and asked if I could sign up.”
That was 50 years ago.
Today, Rose still earns a few pennies (“It really was pennies back in the early days,” he says) as a high school football official and, at 85 years old, is one of the oldest referees in the state.
“He’s in the top five or six (age-wise),” said Faye Verellen-Brown, an administrator with the Michigan High School Athletic Association. “The amazing thing is that he’s still officiating football games. That requires a little bit more physical activity than with other sports.”
While Rose has scaled back his activity – he’s scheduled to do four games this season – he still enjoys the camaraderie with his fellow officiating crew members, and also the game, which has changed in many ways, but remained the same in others.
“I started to cut back a few years ago,” he said. “I decided to do three or four games a year, but I’m still in good health, so I might as well keep doing it.”
Don Rose recently worked as a referee for a Bay City All Saints High School football game.Verellen-Brown said the oldest registered official in the state is 93-year-old Dale Gooding of Saginaw, who’s a high school swimming official. Gooding started officiating 71 years ago.
Rose’s travels as a referee have taken him to many locations, from Detroit to Cheboygan and a long list of places in between. He’s officiated games in gorgeous early fall weather and games in which the rain and snow fell relentlessly, turning the field into muck.
He’s dealt with unruly fans, irritated coaches, grateful administrators and coaches, and everything else that comes with enforcing the rules in a way that doesn’t detract from the action on the field or court. It’s often said of officials that the best ones are those who go unnoticed.
“The one thing I’ve always said is that I don’t want to take away from or hurt the kids,” Rose said. “You can’t get involved on a personal level. You have to do your job the best way you can.”
Rose worked as a basketball referee for seven years. He officiated freshman, junior varsity and varsity football games for many years, often working three games a week. He also worked as a track and field official, including on the college level.
Even better, Rose had the chance to officiate games alongside his son, Don Rose Jr., and his grandson, Jeff Rose. Don Jr. teaches overseas now, but he’s maintained his Michigan official’s license in case he wants to work games when he gets back to the U.S.
“We did a lot of games together,” Rose Sr. said. “We really enjoyed it.”
Once, Rose Sr. got a letter telling him he was assigned to work a football playoff game in the Pontiac area. He took the job, but when he showed up, he found out that his son was supposed to ref the game instead.
“The letter was sent to the wrong house,” he said. “I got home and called my son and told him he should’ve been working that night, not me.”
The first varsity game Rose officiated was at Kinde North Huron High School in 1970. Like any official, Rose doesn’t get every call right, although like all the good ones, he gets most of them right. Once, in a game at Millington, Rose called a runner down before he broke from the pack to score a touchdown.
“The guy dove into the middle of the pack and I’m sure he was down,” he said. “The next thing I know he’s running downfield with no one around him. But I blew the whistle and there was no going back.
“Luckily, the game went into overtime and Millington won. I would’ve felt pretty terrible otherwise.”
Rose said basketball, especially when most games were officiated by two refs instead of three, is a challenge for any official.
“People don’t realize that you’re down at one end of the court with 10 players between you and everything else,” he said. “It’s not easy to see through all those players.”
The first varsity game Rose officiated was at Kinde North Huron High School in 1970. The crew included Rose, Don Sauder, and Larry Clements.
“We were all rookies!” he said. “None of us had worked a game before then and on the ride over we were trying to decide which one of was would be the head referee. We were a little nervous.
“Luckily, the game went well and the people out there said they’d have us back in the future.”
Rose, a Central Michigan University graduate, worked 32 years for General Motors before retiring. He also served in the Army and married Charlotte at Fort Ord in Marina, California. Charlotte, a Bay City native like her husband, passed away last year after 63 years of marriage.
In his “spare” time, Rose coached girls softball at Bay City All Saints High School, and girls track and field at Essexville Garber and Bay City Central for several years.
Rose isn’t sure when he’ll hang up his whistle for good, if ever. Longevity is on his side: he had relatives who lived to be 100 while several others lived into their 90s.
“But who knows? This year may be my last. But if my health is still good next year … you never know.”