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Longtime Duluth sports official dies at 61

Jerry Hill

Duluth lost a pillar of its sports officiating community Wednesday when Jerry Hill died abruptly following a brief illness.

He was 61.

Affectionately known as “Gabby” because of his gift for gab, Hill was a fixture at area fields and rinks for the past three decades. He officiated hockey for almost 30 years, and called baseball, football and softball games for more than 25.

Thursday, his peers recalled Hill as stubborn, fair and confident on the field, and outspoken off it — especially if the topic was his beloved New York Yankees.

“If he had a couple beers in him, look out,” longtime friend and     fellow official Butch Glesner said.

Hill, who graduated from Duluth Cathedral, became well-known throughout the city for his devotion to coaching and officiating. He called games at every level, from youth to college, and never turned down an assignment. On top of that, Hill, always quick to tout the merits of earning a few extra bucks while staying involved with athletics, was an ardent recruiter of young officials.

He knew they were essential to replenishing a thinning stockpile locally.

That — prodding words from Hill — is what lured Corey Verhel, who got his start in 1997 at the age of 19. His first assignment, a hockey game, was with Hill and another youngster, Jason Eckenberg. Verhel said Hill had a way of working with inexperienced officials. He was direct, firm and encouraging. It’s no surprise that both Verhel and Eckenberg still don stripes and masks today.

Hill’s approach was similar with coaches and athletes.

“I don’t know many coaches that didn’t respect him and respect the way he carried himself,” Verhel said.

Another of Hill’s counterparts, Dan Johnson, agreed.

“They respected him,” Johnson said. “Every time he stepped on the field, they knew what they were going to get. Coaches loved seeing him.”

Verhel said Hill’s loss will be especially pronounced this spring with so many baseball and softball games crammed together because of the late winter. Officials will be in demand, with plenty of games to call, a situation Hill relished.

“We would always give him a hard time that if he wasn’t working a baseball or football game, that he had found a kickball game to work,” Johnson said.

Hill leaves behind four children, a stepson and his girlfriend of 26 years, Vicky Knutson