ONTONAGON — For forty years John Gravier has run the football fields, basketball courts and tracks across the Western Upper Peninsula. He is affectionately known as a zebra by many and occasionally there may have been some cheers and boos. Gravier is a referee.
This winter he was honored by the Michigan High School Athletic Association for 40 years as a referee. Although John could not attend the dinner honoring long time referees, the Association presented him with a trophy in which is encased a golden whistle.
Gravier intends to continue referring on a limited basis through the football and part of the basketball season, but he and his retired Michigan State Police wife Vicki will spend each winter in Arizona.
Gravier has had many rewards for his years of referring, but cites the friendships he has gained as the biggest plus.
“So many of the men I referred with became good friends, the late Ernie Toivonen, men like Fritz Wilson, Jim Mattson. John Matrella and Doc Pozika,” he said.
He was partners on the basketball circuit with Pete Rigoni, and Roy Luttinen.
On the basketball court, there were men like Harold Amos, Tom Ranier, Dutch Valesano, Mel Sulkkanen, Jack Giddings and so many more.
“You spend time with these men not just on the floor or field, but driving to and from the games some times in snowstorms, and eating afterward,” Gravier said.
During his referring years he had many highs. He referreed the state final girls and boys basketball games, the State final football game at the silver Dome and Ford Field, and college GLAC games. He also was an assistant official for an NCCA Division 2 tournament at Michigan Tech.
Gravier spent 12 years as Sheriff of Ontonagon County, and many years as under sheriff and deputy. He also worked at the White Pine Copper Company for a short time and part time for the village of Ontonagon. He retired as sheriff in 2013.
John had one piece of advice for young men and women who become referees.
“Keep a diary.” “Coaches have newspaper articles they can clip to remind them of special games, places and people. We have special games and trips as well, funny things like referring a football game in the snow which was over our boots, or with Eugene Fiszer and Gary Peterson driving in a snowstorm. It would be nice to have a diary to look back on and I regret not doing that,” he said.