Columbia's John Dye

Umpire John Dye of Columbia poses for a portrait at the Owen Brown Community Center in Columbia. (Staff photo by Jen Rynda / June 25, 2013)

It's a typical summer Saturday for John and Karen Dye. Karen, 68, wearing a black skirt, black athletic shoes and a whistle around her neck, is darting across one of the fields at Columbia's Cedar Lane Park, refereeing a field hockey game.

Her husband, John, 69, is in the stands watching. But he's on duty as umpire in chief at the softball tournament also going on at Cedar Lane, and he's preparing to drive to one of the five other parks where he's also supervising the umpiring for the day.

Yes, it's a typical summer Saturday for this Columbia couple, who over the past 40-odd years have officiated at an estimated 11,000 games — from field hockey, softball and lacrosse to baseball, football and basketball — and along the way earned reputations as officiating gurus in Central Maryland.

"Karen's pretty much the go-to person around here if you have questions about field hockey and lacrosse," said Jennifer O'Neill, president of the Howard/Carroll Officials Association, which oversees those two sports, and of which Karen is field hockey chairwoman. "Officials, coaches, people who run other associations — they all go to her."

"John's probably one of ... the most knowledgeable and respected officials in the state," said Ralph Eggen, umpire in chief for the Howard County Officials, Inc. "He's been doing it for a long time, and he's still one of the best around."

It's been like that for decades now. And while both Karen and John, approaching 70, are showing signs of slowing down, neither expects to entirely abandon any time soon the work that for so many years has helped define their lives.

Not surprisingly, Karen and John Dye have loved sports since they were children.

They both grew up in Pennsylvania, where Karen played field hockey, lacrosse and a bit of basketball. John played basketball in high school and intramural baseball, softball and tennis after that. Both attended Penn State University — they met while singing in the school's chapel choir.

The couple moved to Columbia in the early 1970s, when John went to work with the National Security Agency. Their careers as officials began soon thereafter.

John was playing recreational sports at work when a friend told him that area teams needed referees. "He said, 'Why don't you come out and try it?' " John recalled. He did, and was hooked.

A half-dozen years later, in 1978, Karen got started. "John came home one night and said a softball official had told him they needed field hockey officials," she recalled. "He said I should try it. I told him I wouldn't do it unless he watched the kids." The couple had three young children at that point.

Since most of his games were in the evening and most of hers in the afternoons, the arrangement worked out, and they've both been officiating steadily since then.

"We'd probably have been involved in sports in some way, at least through the kids," Karen said. "We both grew up with sports, we both like sports. This was a way to keep active in sports."

Karen played both field hockey and lacrosse at Penn State, and those are the sports she referees, at levels ranging from high school to club to college. 

She estimated she is on track to referee 200 games this year.  And with both field hockey and lacrosse now played indoors as well as outdoors, her officiating keeps her busy year-round.

While he limits himself to softball these days, John also has officiated baseball, flag football and basketball.  He quit officiating basketball when his youngest daughter, Virginia, was playing basketball at Oakland Mills High School.

"I decided I'd rather watch her play than officiate," he said.

All three of the Dyes' children — Jane, now 42, Bill, now 40, and Ginny, now 35 — played two or more sports, at least in high school.

"I particularly like the youth aspect of (officiating). It's pretty rewarding," John said. "And, I found I can officiate at a much higher level than I can play, and that's rewarding, too."

"Also, we're both mentors now," Karen said, noting that both teach and train other officials. "And that's important, too. We always need more officials."