Sonny Fulks
Sonny Fulks
Managing Editor

Sonny Fulks is a graduate of Ohio State University where he pitched four varsity seasons for the Buckeyes from 1971 through 1974. He furthered his baseball experience as a minor league umpire for seven seasons, working for the Florida State League (A), the Southern League (AA), and the American Association (AAA). He has written for numerous websites, and for the past fourteen years has served as columnist and photo editor for The Gettysburg Magazine, published by the University of Nebraska Press, in Lincoln Nebraska. His interests include history, support for amateur baseball, the outdoors, and he has dual degrees in music from Ohio State University.

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He’s spent 53 years in officiating, and now Kettering’s Ron Duncan looks back with appreciation for those who made it possible, and forward with the appreciation that the only thing that limits him…is time.

Kettering, OH –  If you ask him to tell you about all the places he’s been, all the things he’s seen, all the people with which he’s worked, and about all the funny stories he can tell…there’s just not enough time for Ron Duncan to get it done.

He’s spent 90 years in and around sports – the first twenty or so as a player and coach, and the past 53 as one of the area’s most respected sports figures for his involvement with officiating…high school football, basketball, and baseball.

Thousands of miles and thousands of games.  Hundreds of officiating partners, and dozens of others who can say they got their start in officiating because of Ron Duncan – including his son Joe, who spent a quarter century working football in the Mid-American and Big Ten Conference before retiring five years ago.

Milestones too many to mention, or even list if you had the time.  He’s worked more state championships than he can sort by year…and has the incredible distinction of having worked the state championships in baseball for 21 consecutive years – his last in 2001.

“That’s a record that’ll never be broken,”  he says quietly, with a chuckle.  “They changed the rule in 2002 and now you can’t work consecutive finals.”

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For the past thirty years he’s served as an assigner of officials for leagues up and down I-75 and across the Miami Valley, having started in the 80s at the suggestion of then Centerville baseball coach Tim Engleka.

“There were some issues with officials, with reliability, back in those days, and I always had a good relationship with Tim,”  says Duncan over how he took on the greater responsibility of having the right people at the right place at the right time.  “I always liked the way he coached…and I think Tim liked the way I umpired.  It was him that suggested that I put a group of officials together that worked as a pool for the sake of consistency.  I’ve been an assigner ever since.”

“I’ve done it all these years because I think people respected me.  That means a lot.”

He shares a birthday with actor Sean Connery (August 25, 1930), and other notables, including composer Leonard Bernstein, TV personality Regis Philbon, and whiskey magnate Jim Beam.  And except for Connery, he jokes that he’s outlived them all.

But more importantly, for the sake of significance to three generations of area athletes and officials…Ron Duncan has touched just as many lives.

“You know, I worked with Ron back in the 70s – worked a lot of games with him, high school and college – says former umpire Steve Partington, now retired, and running the Snowbird Classic college tournament on the west coast of Florida.  “Geez, I thought he was old even back then.

“But what Ron did…he was one of the first to take high school umpiring really seriously, and people noticed.  He helped develop a standard by which the rest of us tried to follow.  He was good, he was fair, and he was reliable.  And, he was a friend.”

He did it as a husband and father of four.  He’s been married to Faye for 69 years, and they still live privately, and independently, in Kettering.

His oldest son, Bill, is the mayor of Oakwood.

Son Tom is the retired chief financial officer of Premier Health.

Daughter Beth is in private business.

And Joe is retired from officiating and as the owner for forty years of Ever-Green Turf and Landscaping, in Troy.

“I’ve worked with a lot of people – a lot of good officials – over that time,”  Duncan said last week, recounting his fifty three years.  “Including Steve (Partington).  We worked high school and college games together and he went on to work college baseball for a long time.

“I got started in umpiring while I was working for Borden Dairy (he has a marketing degree from Miami University).  I requested the school routes so I’d be done by noon and have the afternoons off to umpire.  But I’ve done it all these years because I think people respected me, and that means a lot.  For my last five years Hank Zaborniak, who was in charge of baseball for the OHSAA, would have me work two regionals…and you’re not even supposed to do that.

“And every year during those 21 years working the state finals I would sweat getting my contract for the state tournament, because I just loved going.  Guys would tell me, ‘You’re in, you don’t have to worry,’ but I never felt comfortable until I had that contract in my grubby little hands.  And it wasn’t about the money, because back in those days you got about $75 to work the state tournament.  And the first state tournament I worked – I’d have to look – but I think we made $35 or $40 back then.  It isn’t much now, but that was back in the 60s, and that was pretty good money at the time.”

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He worked three state finals in football.

“But I never worked a Final in basketball,”  he laughs.  “I guess I wasn’t good enough.  But what always got me was going from one sport to another…and the different muscles that got sore.  I thought I was in good shape, but you go from basketball to working the plate in baseball the next week and the next morning you could hardly walk.”

After ninety years his memory for people, places, and games – all those games – is remarkable.  He was the referee at St. Henry for son Joe’s first high school football game.

“The same day Joe had gotten his officials license our crew needed a line judge for a game that night, so I called him and asked what he was doing…and if he’d like to work a game.  Back then there was no required probationary period.  Art Brophy was the principal and the athletic director at St. Henry and we worked their game that night,”  laughs Duncan.  “Joe was the line judge for that game and after the game Brophy had the officials over to his house for food and drinks.  There was nothing to it, and no one gave it a second thought back then.  It was just a courtesy.  Now you don’t do things that way anymore.

“I never really got hurt officiating, but years ago Centerville had a big kid who played linebacker in football and pitched for the baseball team in the spring, to.  And he could really bring it.  He threw a high, hard one that the catcher missed and it hit me right between the eyes…literally knocked my mask off and me on my butt.  No one knew anything about concussions back then, and of course you want to be macho so I right back up.  I put my mask on and motioned for him to throw the next pitch.  When he did I saw two baseballs.”

They’ve been married for 69 years.  “You just got accustomed to Ron being gone for the games,”  says wife Faye.  “That’s how things worked at our house.”

He’s assigned officials for the WOL, the GWOC, the Dayton Public League, the Cross County Conference, but now has scaled back from football and basketball…to just baseball.

“I think I’ll keep doing baseball for awhile,”  he smiles.  “After all, it’s always been my favorite.”

The walls of his den at home are covered with photos, mementos, and memories of 53 years in officiating – like refreshments after the game in Art Brophy’s basement.

He’s a member of three halls of fame – including the OHSAA Officials Hall of Fame and the Miami Valley Baseball Coaches Hall of Fame.

And there’s Faye, mother of four and wife dedicated to the ways of living with an official for all those years.

“It wasn’t so bad at first because I had the kids at home and there was always so much to do for them,”  she remembers.  “And after they were out and gone…you just got accustomed to Ron being gone for the games.  That’s how things worked at our house.”

It’s worked well.  They’re still there, and appreciative of not only their time together, but their time apart…and how it’s kept them close.

For the love of the games – all these years – and each other.

Son Joe (above, left) worked his first high school game with dad Ron…then went on to work 27 seasons in the MAC and Big Ten Conferences.

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