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Past the whistle: St. Louis County commissioner keeps officiating

With area high schools in dire need of officials, Ely's Paul McDonald sticks around to support the games he loves.

three basketball referees laughing
St. Louis County Commissioner and Board Chair Paul McDonald, center, shares a laugh with Frank Ivancich, right, and Robby Ott during a timeout in the Section 7AA boys basketball quarterfinal between Greenway and Pequot Lakes on Saturday, March 12, at Hermantown High School. McDonald, Ivancich and Ott served as referees.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

HERMANTOWN — A head taller than each of the other two officials he took the court with earlier this month, Paul McDonald's stature as a local basketball giant remained evident. He smiled and leaned into a pair of fist bumps with his fellow officials before tossing up the jump ball to open a Section 7AA playoff game between Pequot Lakes and Greenway.

The St. Louis County commissioner from Ely, and this year’s board chair, McDonald remains close to the games he loves by officiating them.

basketball referee looks on during a free throw
St. Louis County Commissioner and Board Chair Paul McDonald, center, looks on over the shoulders of players from Greenway and Pequot Lakes during a free throw while refereeing their 7AA boys basketball quarterfinal Saturday, March 12, at Hermantown High School.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

“It’s an opportunity for me to get out and give back to the games of football and basketball that were good for me,” McDonald said. “I get a chance to reconnect with kids and also with coaches I’ve known forever and ever. It’s just a fun atmosphere and a good release for me.”

Son of the state’s winningest high school basketball coach, the late Bob McDonald, Paul is in his 33rd year as a high school official. During football season, McDonald is a crew chief. It’s the sport that serves him best now, given the breaks between plays and the short bursts of action versus going up and down the court.

“Mentally, football may be more difficult than basketball,” the 64-year-old McDonald said, “but it’s less taxing on the body.”

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While some officials his age left the game during the pandemic, McDonald was among a group of Iron Range officials who agreed to extend their basketball refereeing careers. They did so in order to mentor a younger cast of officials in an age when ranks are thinning faster than they’re being replaced.

“A couple of us who were thinking of stepping away came back in a limited role to take some younger officials with us and work with them,” McDonald said.

The gesture hasn’t gone unnoticed.

Kyle Lamppa is an executive with the Range Coaches and Officials Association, and a member of McDonald’s football crew.

“He feels that obligation and wants us all to succeed,” Lamppa said, describing a challenging situation facing high school officiating not only on the Iron Range, but across the state.

“We’re holding our own — at best,” Lamppa said, “and there’s no good solution other than we need more bodies.”

referee holds basketball before handing it to a player
While refereeing in the Section 7AA boys basketball quarterfinal between Greenway and Pequot Lakes, St. Louis County Commissioner and Board Chair Paul McDonald, center top, prepares to hand a ball to Greenway's Grant Hansen (2) on Saturday, March 12, at Hermantown High School.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

New officials aren’t lasting as long as the McDonalds of the world, because the pressures from fans and even coaches can drive away the rewards of being an official.

To stretch existing crews, Lamppa described how games have had to take on non-traditional playing calendars — more games being played on what had been off days, and the addition of boys and girls doubleheaders.

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McDonald is keen to the pressures of the game, and does his best to insulate younger officials when he’s on the court with them.

“I try to tell younger officials, ‘They’re not hollering at you personally; they’re hollering at the shirt,’” McDonald said. “It’s hard for some people across the generations to not take it personally, but that’s a big thing — if you can find people that don’t take criticism personally.”

COVID-19 protocols have meant only one official deals with coaches during a game. McDonald has seized that role, allowing younger folks he’s officiated with to focus on calling the action.

referee signals while basketball player runs
St. Louis County Commissioner and Board Chair Paul McDonald, left, signals as Greenway's Israel Hartman (35) runs down the court during Greenway's Section 7AA boys basketball quarterfinal vs. Pequot Lakes Saturday, March 12, at Hermantown High School. McDonald served as one of the referees for the game.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

“I’ve heard it all,” McDonald said, recalling one recent comment that made him chuckle — a fella in the crowd calling for him to get the hair out of his eyes.

“I enjoyed the interaction,” McDonald said.

And he's willing to take the abuse and shield the younger set as they learn on the job.

"We're in a problem now, but if we lose the limited numbers of newer officials we have we're going to be in a dire situation," McDonald said.

McDonald spent 29 years as the head men’s basketball coach and athletic director at Vermilion Community College, retiring in 2019. He enjoyed a decorated prep career at Chisholm — twice a state champion — before playing basketball for a year at the University of Nebraska and finishing at South Dakota State University, where he still holds records.

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“My dad always said, ‘The game has been good to us, let’s make sure we do what we can to pass that on,’” McDonald said.

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St. Louis County commissioners gather on Webex, an online meeting platform, to conduct a meeting in April 2020, early in the COVID-19 pandemic. Board Chair Paul McDonald is pictured center-right.
Screenshot

As county board chair, McDonald has already put a stamp on his tenure by using several weeks without a scheduled board meeting to conduct workshops. Workshops allow the board to spend time with county administration diving deeper into the issues that face the county.

“I’ve been really impressed with him,” said Commissioner Ashley Grimm, representing western Duluth, of McDonald.

Politics and governing are a side of McDonald those close to him have always known existed. Because the McDonald name rings throughout the Northland, he’s always been popular everywhere he goes.

“We always knew refereeing with him that when we got somewhere he would know everybody there and everybody knew him,” Lamppa said. “We would affectionately say, ‘There’s Mac, running for mayor.’”

At this month’s Duluth and St. Louis County Days at the Minnesota Legislature, McDonald spoke to a large crowd of people, loosening them up by telling how he’d officiated games with Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce President Matt Baumgartner, who was in attendance, and describing how every time he blows the whistle he upsets half a crowd — not unlike sometimes working with fellow county commissioners.

Several people commented to county officials afterward about what a good speaker McDonald was.

“It’s just who he is,” Lamppa said. “He’s such a communicator and likable person.”

referee raises both arms in the air
St. Louis County Commissioner and Board Chair Paul McDonald raises his arms to signal a made three-point shot.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

For McDonald, officiating isn’t about the money, which is steady but modest. It gives him a stipend he sets aside for vacations with his spouse, Tracy.

“You have to have a supportive network at home to be able to do this,” McDonald said.

McDonald’s first term on the board ends after the Nov. 8 election. He’s not yet said if he’ll run again.

“I got into this gig to help people,” he said. “And I got into officiating to help the game and have fun doing it.”

READ MORE BY BRADY SLATER
State Sen. David Tomassoni knows his days are drawing down, yet he'll support and return for a special session if it's called.

Brady Slater is a former reporter for the Duluth News Tribune.
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