By Randy Arrington
LURAY, Oct. 26 — After serving as referee for more than 3,000 games and impacting the lives of more than 20,000 children in Page County over the past 15 years, Tony Painter has decided to hang up his whistle.
“Some have asked ‘please don’t go’ and I don’t want to…but I feel like I’ve given everything I can and if I can’t do that, if I can’t do what I did in the past, I feel like I’m cheating them,” Painter said last week.
He first tore his meniscus in January 2020. The meniscus is a C-shaped piece of tough, rubbery cartilage that acts as a shock absorber between the shinbone and thighbone. It can be torn with a sudden twist of the knee, while bearing weight on it — like a referee might do during a game. A torn meniscus is one of the most common knee injuries.
Painter’s second tear came in April 2021. That’s when the doctor recommended a new line of work and surgery followed in August.
“I will miss the kids more than anything,” Painter said. “They made it easy to do…that’s why I did it.”
The Page County native celebrated his 53rd birthday on Oct. 13. Six days later, he ref’d his final soccer games at Luray Middle School as the fall season came to a close. Painter will complete his duties as director of the Page County Recreation Department on Oct. 28, but his official last day is Jan. 1, 2022 as he takes advantage of years of unused leave.
The county first hired Painter as an athletic coordinator on Oct. 10, 2006. He got his first day at work off because it was Columbus Day, but since then he has coordinated registrations, handled scheduling, ordered uniforms and equipment, found coaches, helped maintain facilities and worked with local schools through fall and spring soccer and boys and girls basketball.
While that may not sound like a lot to some, consider that each team has a dozen or more players, with twice as many parents — and you are the one holding the whistle at their kids’ games…for 15 years.
“That Friday night before…knowing you’re going to be running up and down the court from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. on a Saturday…and what you’re going to face…you’re like ‘holy cow’,” Painter said. “But once you get in there and see the kids, it’s no problem.”
Page County does not plan to immediately hire a replacement for Painter, but they want to squelch rumors that his resignation marks the end of the county’s recreation programs.
“Currently, the county has no plans to shut down the Recreation Department,” County Administrator Amity Moler said last week.
However, just like last winter, there will be no recreational basketball program for boys or girls in 2021-22. Last year, social distancing could not be achieved in the smaller gyms, and the program did not want to ban parents from games. This year, the county administrator stated that the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic and potential school closings, made it questionable as to whether or not they county’s recreation department would be able to use school facilities for games. In addition, the county “could not pay two salaries”, according to Moler, and needed to wait until Painter’s tenure officially ends on New Year’s Day before considering a replacement.
Moler stated that the county does intend to make a new hire in time to pick back up with a spring soccer program. She also noted that the county’s rec department may look at expanding its programs and offering options for adults and senior citizens. Currently, the department’s annual offerings include basketball (next winter) for boys and girls, fall and spring soccer, a golf tournament in July and several summer camps. Painter also started a family walking program called “Heart and Sole”, in which participants walk 30 miles in a month and then enter their name in a monthly drawing for prizes.
The county administrator knows the next rec director will have big shoes to fill.
“He’s going to be hard to replace. He’s great with kids and parents…He’s done such an amazing job. He’s definitely going to be missed,” Moler said. She added that Painter was also the “resident party planner” for county employee get-togethers. “He loved organizing our holiday office pot lucks and looked so forward to them. He brought us all together to celebrate, even if it was only an hour or two. I think we will all miss that. I know I will.”
Painter could have continued in his role as director of the rec department from his desk, delegating more of the duties — but that’s not his way.
“It would be too hard to sit back and watch,” Painter said. “I like being with ’em too much.”
Painter kept costs down by serving as referee for “85 to 90 percent” of rec league games for the last 15 years — that’s 50 to 60 games per program (for all age groups) for four programs each year. During his tenure, Painter only raised registration fees one time, making up the difference sometimes with fundraisers like parking lot bingo held during the pandemic.
“My programs were not there to make money…the No. 1 thing is to let these kids have fun,” he said. “It’s not about the best players…rec league gives everybody a chance to play.”
Painter was strict about his rule that “everyone plays at least half the game” in rec league. He claims that over a decade-and-a-half he only had to “warn parents” about their behavior about five times and says he was lucky to have “good parents.”
The recreation director describes his last night at the soccer field on Oct. 19 as “rough”. He admitted to shedding a few tears as he told each age group about his retirement, and that it would be his final night on the field.
“I’ve met a lot of people that I would have never met that have become life-long friends,” Painter said of his tenure. One of those people is Bill Perry, who Painter said was a “backbone” of the rec program that helped out in any way he could.
Painter has no immediate plans for his “retirement”, but he looks back on his time with the county’s rec department with fond memories…and a sense of accomplishment.
“It’s nice when you can see kids have something to do…and know you had a positive impact on them,” he said. “I will be out there…and there’s a kid who’s never scored a basket in basketball or scored a goal in soccer, and to see their faces when they do…it’s all worth it.”