Mitch Hecomovich remembers the first basketball game he officiated as if it was only yesterday.
It was back in 1941, when the now 89-year-old White Salmon resident was a 27-year-old assistant basketball coach at Cretin High School in St. Paul, Minn.
"It was snowing pretty good that day," he recalls. "The official who was supposed to work the game didn't show up. So I put on a striped shirt and a whistle and did the game."
That was the beginning of a career as a basketball official and baseball umpire that would run from 1946-1989.
"It was an interest I had, a vocation that I just enjoyed doing," Hecomovich notes, referring to officiating athletic competitions that ranged from Washington state Class B boys basketball tournaments to Oregon state baseball playoff games.
On Aug. 12 in SeaTac, the Washington Officials Association will recognize Hecomovich for his 43 years of service as a sports official--22 years as a member of the WOA--with induction into the association's Hall of Fame.
In nominating Hecomovich for the WOA honor, Dave VanLaar of the Columbia Gorge Officials Association wrote, "Mitch called any level, from junior high to jayvee to varsity. He also donated his time to umpiring Little League games and maintaining Little League fields...[and] helped train younger Little League umpires."
Much later, VanLaar pointed out, Hecomovich contributed money to help pay for improvements to Columbia High School's baseball field; those private contributions led CHS to name the field in his honor.
But perhaps the greatest, most lasting contribution the man alternately known as "Hec" and "The Coach" has made to athletics in general, and to CHS athletics in particular, was creation of the Hecomovich Athletic Endowment Fund in 2001.
"In deciding where the assets from our estate should be distributed, we felt a sizable amount should be allotted to the Hecomovich Athletic Foundation for our local schools. Such a foundation will benefit more students than any other program that exists," Hecomovich wrote in 2003 CHS Alumni Association newsletter.
The philanthropic fund, which is striving to reach its goal of $1 million, eventually will be used to maintain White Salmon Valley School District sports programs and facilities.
Says Hecomovich, in his typical no-nonsense manner, "It'll be a far cry from when I used a gallon gas can to line the football field when I arrived (here) in 1946."
Hecomovich, a native of Marble, Minn., moved to the White Salmon area 58 years ago to teach physical education and coach football and baseball at Columbia Union High School.
He remained at Columbia for 10 years before going to work as a gas hauler.
His passion for sports, however, soonafter led him to accept the boys basketball coaching position at Glenwood High School, where he worked part time from 1956-63 while still gas deliveries.
Hecomovich gave up his Glenwood job to become a full-time gas hauler, something he did until 1968. He returned to CHS in 1969 and coached football and baseball until his retirement from teaching in 1976.
But, even in retirement, Hecomovich couldn't stay away from the games he loves so much. "I liked the atmosphere and being part of the game," he says.
Shortly after moving to White Salmon, Hecomovich joined an officials association based in The Dalles, Ore.
On a given weekend of high school basketball season, Hecomovich might call a varsity game in Fossil, Ore., on a Friday night, and be in Goldendale for a junior varsity contest the next.
"We went wherever the games were, wherever Mitch was needed," said Olga Jane, Hecomovich's wife of 53 years and almost constant traveling companion during his years as an sports official.
In 1955, the Trico League invited Hecomovich to umpire its baseball championship game between Ridgefield and Castle Rock.
That invitation followed a league game in which Hecomovich, CHS's coach at the time, once again was forced into action when an official failed to show up for an assignment.
With his opponent's agreement, Hecomovich called balls and strikes and covered all the bases from a position behind the pitcher's mound.
"A guy who saw the game said he liked the way I called balls and strikes, and asked me if I'd be interested in working the plate for the league championship," Hec recalls. "I said, `Sure, why not.'"
The wear-and-tear of all the travel, though, eventually led Hecomovich to join four of his colleagues, Ron Logan and Rick Holtmann of White Salmon and Darrell Watson and Woody Hunter of Goldendale, in forming the Klickitat County (now Columbia Gorge) Officials Association in the 1960s.
Until his retirement from basketball officiating in 1983--he refereed his last game at the age of 69--Hecomovich served the Washington-based association as its president and vice president, and as a member of its board of directors.
In 1977, during an officials meeting, then-Lyle athletic director Jim Titus presented him with a meritorious service award from the WOA.
Next month, Hecomovich will receive the WOA's highest honor with his induction into its hall of fame.
"It's a great honor for Mitch personally," said VanLaar, "but it's also a great honor for our association because he's still one of us, one of the guys who helped get us started all those years ago."