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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion >  Syndicated columns

Blanchette: Disarming George Chalich kept the fun in sports

Family members are shown in this 2012 photo: from left, Ray Chalich, Nick Chalich, Dorothy Burns, George Chalich, Stan Chalich and Sadie Rueckert. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Family members are shown in this 2012 photo: from left, Ray Chalich, Nick Chalich, Dorothy Burns, George Chalich, Stan Chalich and Sadie Rueckert. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

For a guy who spoke nothing but Serbo-Croatian until he was 7 or 8, George Chalich did OK with the English tongue.

Earned himself a couple of college degrees. Wooed a bride who initially didn’t have much use for him because used to light up her school on the basketball court as the star for a rival team. Taught history and government for 25 years to classrooms of entertain-me teenagers. And defused tense confrontations with coaches with a joke or calm word – usually the former.

Though sometimes he didn’t even need that.

“There was a time he was refereeing in some little town up north and someone in the stands was riding him really hard,” recalled his daughter, Linda. “At one point he blew the whistle and stopped everything, turned and winked at this guy and the crowd just erupted.

“He won over that gym in a second.”

That wink could reassure a student that the D she pulled on a test wouldn’t be fatal to her final grade if she’d just summon a little more effort. Or tell a young pitcher who just saw strike three called a ball that the ump wouldn’t miss the next pitch in the same spot.

We’ll miss the winks and wisecracks, and more.

George Chalich died Sunday night at the age of 86, one of those heart-and-soul guys in Spokane’s sports community who nobody thinks to call an icon – maybe because they’re more than just symbols.

Teacher and coach, referee and umpire, parks and rec leader in the summer, hall of famer in both softball and golf-ball scrounging – Chalich wore enough hats in his everyman adult life that it was easy to forget that he’d been a special high school athlete. He set the old City League scoring record as a senior at Central Valley, making the all-state basketball team.

He was also – a mere 65 years ago – Gonzaga University’s leading scorer.

Now, that didn’t carry the cachet it does today, the games played then in the long-gone gym in College Hall where there was barely enough wattage to see the hoop, much less light the action for ESPN’s cameras.

But whatever dazzling bouquets the Zags deliver these days, the seed was planted back then. Chalich’s senior season was coach Hank Anderson’s rookie year, and it was Anderson who dragged Gonzaga into the NCAA Division I ranks.

Chalich and his wife, Jeri, would attend games in the old Kennel on his “lifetime pass” and take any open seat, and he was a regular at the McCarthey Athletic Center, too. And he’d watch the Top 25 Zags jump it up on TV from New York or Maui and chuckle about the modest ambitions of his teams.

“I used to say our schedule took us clear out to Whitworth,” he once joked, “and on our western jaunt, we went to Eastern.”

The story of what delivered Chalich to GU was oft-told.

Eli Chalich was an immigrant Butte copper miner who moved his wife, Martha, and a family that would grow to seven children to 10 acres on Progress Road after he’d contracted lung disease. His death in 1945 left 15-year-old George as the family patriarch – and dropping out of school the first option.

His CV basketball coach, Ray Thacker, intervened – convincing Martha that Chalich was good enough to earn a college scholarship. And he did, heading off to the University of Washington with his best friend, Dale Thomason. But in time, Chalich’s mother would need help wrangling her rambunctious brood, and so the transfer to Gonzaga.

He coached the baseball team while finishing up his degree and then started his career in education at Oakesdale. Later there would be basketball success at Mead – two state tournaments – and little of it at North Central, where his last team went 0-21 and gave him material to poke fun at himself. But by retirement in 1982 he’d already made a full segue to officiating, calling everything from YMCA games to the Pac-8 –even unretiring at age 69 to work little-school football.

Randy Burkhart, whose dad had played softball with Chalich, was a rookie ref when he got an early education as sidekick on a trip to Ritzville.

“He could disarm a nuclear bomb,” Burkhart said. “He’d get away with stuff with coaches that for a young buck was frowned upon.”

In the classroom, too. Chalich was enough of a student favorite that he was still getting invitations to class reunions last year.

“From the get-go, he was in it for the kids,” said Linda Chalich. “He liked teaching every bit as much as coaching, especially the kids who worked hard – he was a big believer that DNA wasn’t the end-all. And in officiating, he really saw the games for what they were.”

That is, a good time. Fun. George Chalich had as much as anyone.

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