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PRIME TIME: Track, field official still firing starter’s pistol at 87

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PRIME TIME: Track, field official still firing starter’s pistol at 87

At 87, he's still firing off the starter's pistol and clerking in athletes at meets both big and sma

At 87, he's still firing off the starter's pistol and clerking in athletes at meets both big and small. It's a job he's done since 1949, the year he graduated from Springfield College with majors in biology and physical education.

His first meet was at the city of Springfield's own track invitational, work that paid him $5. That same year, he worked as a local track official at Johnstown's Knox Field, to this day a popular place for big high school track and field meets. He was a newly hired teacher at Johnstown, where he was also enlisted to coach football, junior varsity basketball and varsity track.

Zoellner retired from teaching in 1979 but has never retired from officiating.

"Bottom line: I thoroughly enjoy officiating, so why quit while I can still contribute?" Zoellner explained in an email.

He and his wife, Peg, have made some concessions to retirement. They winter in South Carolina, although Milt in recent years had to give up golf. He's also had to abandon bowling, with his chief winter hobby, he explained good-naturedly, now following the weather reports from upstate New York.

"He's extremely professional and still sharp as a tack," said Dave Petersen, the head of Section II boys track. "His presence deserves respect."

Jane Karker of Fort Plain, who coordinates the assignments of the region's track officials, said Zoellner has always had a wonderful rapport with the student-athletes with whom he works.

"He's kind of bubbly when he goes to a track meet," said Karker, who's an old friend of Zoellner's. "He's really, really good with the kids and he has the authority. You can't get away with anything with Milt .

" Milt officiates for the right reason. The kids never hear him say anything about the money. He loves the sport," Karker said.

At that first Johnstown track meet in 1949, Zoellner worked under Bill Wright, his new high school principal but also chairman of Section II track. The following year, Wright resigned as chairman and Zoellner was appointed to the position.

"Nobody else would take it because all classes of boys' track sectionals were held in one day at Knox Field. It was a three-ring circus. As time went on, opportunities came up to get paid for easier officiating than supervising sectionals. "I started races at invitationals at Saratoga, Albany, Glens Falls and others while coaching the JHS track team," Zoellner said.

He went into teaching and coaching to help young people master their skills. "I loved coaching because we had groups of kids who wanted to develop and play "" no rebels," he wrote. "Success in coaching whetted my appetite for more and it carried over into the classroom."

Petersen, a longtime area track coach as well as current Section II chairman, is among the students Zoellner has inspired. Petersen had no interest in track until Zoellner, his biology teacher at Johnstown High, encouraged him to give it a try.

"I guess I had some God-given talent and Milt saw that," Petersen said. "If it wasn't for him, I probably wouldn't have gone to college."

When boys' track officials organized in 1974, Zoellner was one of the founding members. Shortly after, the girls' track officials organized and Zoellner joined that group.

The two groups merged in 1984. Zoellner had served as treasurer of the girls' group and upon the merger, was elected treasurer of the combined group.

Zoellner didn't often work as an official in those days because he was too busy coaching. But when he had a free Saturday, he often found himself back working as an official.

He worked at the Schenectady Police Meet (later named the Eddy Meet) for many years serving as timer, pole vault judge, high jump judge and later as the clerk of course. Over time, he became a familiar sight all over the region, working as a starter and clerk at many league, invitational and sectional meets.

Valued official

At Fonda-Fultonville track meets, Zoellner has always been a valued official.

"Over the years, Milt has been a valuable resource for Dave (Petersen) and I while coaching here at Fonda. He has given us training tips as well as helped us with rules clarifications," said Mark Therrien, now head coach at Fonda-Fultonville as well as Section II girls track and field coordinator.

During the early years, Zoellner often worked meets with Ken Smith, then superintendent of HFM-BOCES. Together, the two expanded their officiating work to swimming. Neither had any experience with the sport, but they decided to give it a try.

Smith eventually became president and Zoellner served as assignor for many years with the Capital District swim officials.

"Over the years, I've officiated the other sports, but track and field is, by far, my favorite. After more than 60 years of officiating, you might have guessed that," Zoellner said.



In March 2004, heart surgery left Zoellner unable to write well. While he had to give up his role as treasurer of the Capital District Track Officials, he remained an active official. During those few track seasons when he was unable to write, Zoellner's fellow officials kept him on the job by assigning him the duty of starting races, a job that didn't require writing.

His writing has since improved, thanks in part to "many crossword puzzles and signature practicing sessions," he said.

In 2010, a back injury hampered his walking ability. Again, fellow officials came to his rescue, giving him the job of clerking big meets.

Being clerk allowed him to sit down once in a while instead of standing for hours on end, as is often the case at track meets.

"Association with young people keeps me young, at least in spirit," he said.

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