by Rob Tucker
July 21, 2011
While many retirees may spend a few years finding a new passion or perhaps rediscovering an old one, the choice has always been crystal clear for Tom Priester.
"I don't play golf. I don't own a boat anymore and I don't smoke," he said. "This is my vocation now. That's it."
Priester is talking about track and field, the sport he loves above all others. So much, in fact, that he's been spending his time at the track as a coach and official for the past 40 years.
"Tom is a track enthusiast. He loves the sport and he loves the kids," Jamestown assistant coach Ron Graham said. "That's why he's been doing it for so long."
Priester coached track and field at Southwestern High School from 1966 to 1974 before stepping down to pursue his masters degree. It could have spelled the end of his relationship with the sport.
Instead, it proved to be just the beginning.
"I coached at Southwestern and then went to get my masters and I thought I could be done with track," the West Ellicott resident explained. "But then I said, 'I love the sport, why don't I officiate?'
"And I've been doing that since 1975."
Priester, a USA Track and Field certified official, began officiating the Jesse Owens Games on the weekends in between teaching. Soon he was traveling with fellow officials and friends such as Joe Paterniti to the Empire State Games. In 1993 he was at the World University Games, in 1995 the World Masters in Buffalo. And really, the traveling hasn't slowed down a bit since.
This past Monday Priester returned from the west coast - Sacramento, Calif. to be exact - where he was an official for the past 11 days at the World Master Athletic Championships, a meet in which more than 5,000 athletes took part, all ranging between the ages of 35- and 95-years-old.
"Though there weren't many 95-year-olds," he quipped.
At the championship Priester saw athletes of all different shapes and sizes, each there for the same reason he was: the love of the sport.
"There is no qualifying involved (at the meet), it's just open to anyone that wants to compete," he explained. "I like all the different events. You don't have to be real fast or real big, you can be small and quick or big and strong and there is an event for you."
Another enjoyable aspect for Priester is that he is witness to the outstanding athletic feats of both the athletes of yesterday and the athletes of tomorrow.
"I've seen Alan Webb (current U.S. record holder for the mile at 3:46.91) as a high school kid." he said. "(At the World Masters) I saw 50-year-old Willie Gault (former NFL player for the Super Bowl winning Chicago Bears). He ran a 22.1 in the 200 meters, had a five-yard lead and stumbled, so to finish with that time and see a 50-year-old do that was incredible."
This was just the latest event that has taken Priester across the nation and back again, crisscrossing from one corner to the other.
This year he has officiated at five different meets, including four in the past five weeks.
"I went to the NCAAs in June, the National High School meet in Greensboro, N.C. - my favorite event - and also the Junior-Senior Nationals in Eugene, Ore."
And if that wasn't a shining enough example of his love for the sport, all the travel was on his own dime.
"(They don't pay) a bit," he said. "We have to get down there on our own. They only provide us with a dormitory and one or two meals a day. We might get a T-shirt or two as well."
At these meets his time is mostly consumed by officiating. At the World Master Athletic Championships he would spend four days officiating, get a day off and then go back to work for another four days at the track.
The breaks between all the work, however, do afford him some interesting sight-seeing opportunities.
"(The officiating) is a good way to travel if you can get the time off and we try to do things," he said. "In Sacramento I walked across the Golden Gate Bridge. It was over a mile long and the wind was howling like mad, but it was fun to think that I may be the only guy from Jamestown to have walked across it."
One can be sure that it is only a matter of time before Priester is off once again to another part of the country to officiate. And, according to Graham, athletes and organizers of the meets are lucky to have him.
"He's a professional, a consummate professional and a good friend to track and field," he said. "He's done a lot for the sport and is now at a point where he can officiate any world-class event."
Scott Kindberg contributed to this report.