For Columbia's Karen and John Dye, officiating is a way of life

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."

A slower pace?

The Dyes have begun slowing their hectic pace. Somewhat.

John used to umpire about 200 softball and baseball games a year, but now averages about 50, he said. However, he has taken on more administrative work over the years.

He serves as fast pitch umpire in chief for the Maryland State U.S. Specialty Sports Association and chairman of the USSSA National Fast Pitch Umpire Committee. In those roles, he oversees a variety of tournaments, both local and national, and updates rule books, among other duties.

He said the smaller officiating workload is by choice, and that he mainly umpires fast-pitch youth and senior softball anymore. 

"It's more fun working with them rather than the (young) adults," he explained. "It's more an attitude sort of thing than anything else.

"I know age is going to catch up with me at some time," John added of his workload. "I don't see doing this forever, but I don't have any immediate plans."

Although the 200 games she is on track to referee this year would be her most ever, Karen said she is at least considering cutting back.

"I'll drop lacrosse first," she said. "There's a lot more running in lacrosse." She said she also is hoping to get others to take over some of the training she does.

Although neither plays competitive sports anymore, the pair finds time for volksmarching, a noncompetitive fitness walking event popularized in Europe. John, who learned of volks-marching when he was stationed in Stuttgart, Germany with the NSA, is president of the Columbia Volksmarch Club, which sponsors six year-round 10-kilometer walks. Karen is secretary of the club.

'Hard to replace'

If and when they get around to retiring, Karen said they hope to travel more. She said she would love to return to Germany, as well as visit Alaska, where one of their daughters and two of their five grandchildren live, and perhaps even Australia.

That would be exotic travel for a couple whose trips have been largely confined to the various tournaments at which they work.

When the Dyes, both of whom are in the Howard County Community Sports Hall of Fame, do retire, it will leave a gaping hole in the officiating ranks of Howard County and the state.

"Karen's viewed as being at the top," said Pat Troyer, another veteran field hockey official and former coach at Towson High School, who regularly officiates with Karen Dye. "She's well-respected by everyone."

"She's a mentor to youths up and coming to be officials," O'Neill said. "She's been involved for so long. … She knows the game, she knows the rules."

"John's seen as one of the best umpires in the state of Maryland," said Jake Jacobs, who serves as USSSA umpire in chief for the northeast region and has known John Dye for 25 years. "I hope John doesn't slow down very soon because he's going to be very, very hard to replace. I couldn't think of anybody to take his job right now."

However long they continue their officiating careers, the Dyes have built a lifetime of good memories.

"Officiating has given me the opportunity to be involved in sports activities I enjoy," John wrote in an email. "It has allowed me to work … with friends and neighbors, from youth to seniors. It has given me the chance to also work at the state, regional and national level. Officiating keeps me physically active."

"When I first got into officiating, I wasn't sure where it would lead," Karen wrote in an email, "but the friendships I have with officials and coaches, and the development of players in both sports has been very satisfying, 

"Seeing women's lacrosse come into the high schools in Howard County is certainly a highlight of my career.  I always considered myself something of a pioneer, participating in college sports before Title IX was around.  Seeing the growth of women's sports over my officiating career only fueled the passion I have for the games."

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