BENNINGTON, Vermont — Robert Houle jumps at the chance to be a referee because it combines sports and working with youth.
A retired educator, Houle, now 89, was one of two referees on the court for a recent Bennington matchup between the School of Sacred Heart St. Francis and Twin Valley; there was a girls’ game followed by a boys’ game for the schools in Bennington and Wilmington, Vermont.
Houle calls the shots as he sees them, blowing his whistle but then often offering an explanation why. “Let me tell you what you did,” he said to one of the girls, then explaining her foul. To another, he said, “You ran out of bounds. Nice try.”
He wants the players to learn not just about the sport but about life in general. Sports are good for children because they help them learn to work with others, learn rules and learn to follow rules. They learn good sportsmanship. Sports also help keep them active and fit.
And sports are something “you can stay with all your life,” he told Vermont Catholic, magazine of the Diocese of Burlington.
Houle, raised in Northampton, Massachusetts, “was always involved in sports but never a star athlete,” he said. He played a little football and basketball at Northampton High School, but at 5 feet, 5 inches tall with a light build, he was more suited for gymnastics, which he participated in for four years.
He served in Germany during the Korean War, playing on the company basketball and touch football teams and on the division ski team.
After the war, he earned a bachelor’s degree in business from American International College in Springfield, Massachusetts, married and moved to Vermont in 1959 to accept a teaching position at the former Bennington High School.
He and wife Barbara had three children, and he became the vocational director for Mount Anthony Career Development Center, retiring in 1999 after 40 years as an educator.
In the early years of retirement, he refereed some 200 games a year, including in Florida during monthlong March visits.
A retired National Guard lieutenant colonel, Houle took up flying in 1954, earning a private pilot license along with his wife. They sold the last plane they owned — a well-equipped Piper 180 — two years ago.
He has been refereeing various levels of different sports since 1959. Now he focuses on football, soccer, basketball and lacrosse for middle school, junior varsity and youth league games. He’s a bit slower than he used to be, having had surgery on both hips and knee problems.
But that doesn’t stop him.
Refereeing keeps him in “good physical condition,” he said, adding that he enjoys working out at his home gym, and he used to be a ski patrol at the nearby Prospect Mountain.
On the court recently at the parish center of Sacred Heart St. Francis de Sales Parish — the parish to which he belongs — Houle sported a referee’s black and white striped shirt, black pants and black sneakers as he made his way up and down the court, keeping his attention on the game, blowing his whistle when necessary.
“He does a great job,” said Dan Sleeman, coach of the girls’ team from the Bennington Catholic school. “He’s absolutely amazing. He’ll not only make the call, he’ll explain it to the kid.”
Houle sees some athletes with God-given talent while other players struggle with the game.
“It’s my job to help them play to the best of their ability,” he said. “I’m still a teacher out there.”
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Urban is managing editor of Vermont Catholic, magazine of the Diocese of Burlington.