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John Blanchette: Heart-and-soul Spokanite Randy Burkhart truly whistled while he worked

During summers at Priest Lake, Randy Burkhart was known to drag his son Jackson down to the boat before breakfast, motor offshore of Kalispell Island, bring a megaphone to his lips and holler, “Arise and shine, everyone!”

Then he’d have Jackson crank up “America the Beautiful” on the stereo speakers by way of good morning.

“The kids would die of embarrassment,” remembered his wife, Delon, “but then you’d look and everyone up and down the island would be standing there with hands over their hearts.”

If you’ve ever caught an airing of “A Thousand Clowns” on Turner Classic, you’ll recognize in such sunrise patriotism a bit of practical joker Murray Burns exhorting his New York neighbors from the fire escape of his apartment. But you could recognize other little touches in him, too – a Mr. Chips or an older Weasley brother or even someone from his favorite TV sitcom.

“Just like a character from ‘The Andy Griffith Show,’ ” said his teaching colleague at East Valley, Shane Toy. “Unpretentious. Down to earth. Heart of gold.”

Well, maybe a little harder of heart when he had to slap a basketball coach with a technical foul.

But Randy Burkhart doled out those sparingly, all too aware that people weren’t paying their way into the Kennel or Friel Court to watch him referee – and just as accepting that the price of a ticket bought them not just a seat but leave to ride the zebras.

He was missed from the game when he whistled the end to his officiating career six years ago because of achy knees, and now he’ll be missed, period. Dogged by liver disease for more than two years, Burkhart died Sunday at the damnably young age of 57.

His family and friends could sift through a hundred epitaphs. But let’s recycle one he came up with years ago when another untimely death took his former football coach at Spokane Falls Community College, Bob Everson, before the next freshman class could benefit from his presence in their lives.

“I feel so hurt,” Burkhart said that day, “but I feel worse for them.”

There are 34 years worth of kids who came through the East Valley School District who might say the same thing, remembering the nicknames Burkhart gave them – “Everybody got one,” said Craig Shaver, a student who later coached with him – or showing up on the first day of school to be greeted by a 6-foot-4 man decked out in an EV band uniform. P.E. wasn’t just rolling out a soccer ball. Special needs kids were made to feel, well, special.

And practical jokes on colleagues abounded. Burkhart was beyond self-deprecating about his foot speed as a referee, but it didn’t stop him from mock-pitching himself for a sprint-coach opening Toy had – or concocting an elaborate video to perpetuate the hoax.

“I left school every day having had at least one hard belly laugh,” Toy said.

The laughs continued at the Burkhart home, where he and Delon raised Addie, Bennett and Jackson and tracked their achievements with a fierce pride.

Oh, and Sherman, too. That was the name of his barbecue grill.

“He named his grills,” confirmed Addie. “He gave one away and we had to drive by the house where it went to live to look at it. Maybe we shouldn’t say that – we don’t want to make him sound weird.”

On the contrary, that sounds thoroughly Spokane – and Burkhart was, if nothing else, one of those heart-and-soul Spokane guys. A three-sport athlete at Ferris, he quarterbacked the Falls to a league title and went on to Whitworth – where he saw three strong-armed quarterbacks and asked if there might be another position where he could contribute. By the end of his senior year, he was an NAIA All-American tight end.

But it was basketball officiating that took him up and down the coast working Pac-12, WCC and Big Sky games for 20 years after apprenticing on high schools and JCs.

He tossed up the jump ball for the last Gonzaga game at the old Kennel – and the first game in the new one with Mike Peterson, a regular compadre over the years.

“He made me a better official,” Peterson said. “In officiating, it’s three against the world and he was a great teammate because it was always about the game and doing things right. He didn’t have the big ego.”

Burkhart’s younger brother Rick followed him into officiating, and saw that side, too.

“After games, referees would meet down at the old Shack or up north at Ichabod’s or the Onion,” he recalled. “Randy might be coming from a WSU game and there’d be young officials who were working their first year with a high school varsity schedule. Now, I’ve been around tables with big-time officials who just want to talk about themselves. Randy wanted to hear from the young guys. He would give them his full attention, help them, answer their questions.”

And get them out of a funk over a missed call with a story or a joke. That was always Randy Burkhart’s best call.

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