It’s been what Jim Ackley called “a tough six weeks.”
We can trust his math, as he’s an expert on counting.
He contracted pneumonia in October and was hospitalized for 10 days. Two weeks after being home, he was back in hospital due to a stubborn lung. He’s been back home about a week.
“I don’t have much energy,” he said Tuesday afternoon, before being honored at night for 50 years of service as Mundelein High School’s varsity boys basketball scorekeeper.
He’s displayed remarkable energy during his half-century run. A 1948 graduate of Libertyville High School, his four children — Scott, Dawn, Rebecca and Kathleen — were in attendance Tuesday night. Ackley lost his bride of 53 years, Shirley, four years ago.
“She used to be a rabble-rouser with the referees,” Ackley said, laughing. “She always claimed they were blind and needed glasses.”
He started as Mundelein’s sophomore scorekeeper in 1961, the year Mundelein High School opened. He took over as the varsity scorekeeper the following season, and the former eighth-grade basketball coach at Carl Sandburg Junior High has been “keeping the book” ever since.
Born April 3, 1930 in Lake Geneva, Wis., the 82-year-old Ackley worked in education for 37 years, starting in 1958. He taught science at Carl Sandburg and later in Mt. Prospect, where over the years he wore several hats, including science teacher and principal. He retired in 1995.
“I enjoyed every minute of it,” Ackley said.
“Well, almost every minute,” he added, chuckling.
Acknowledging that, due to his failing health, this is probably his last year as Mundelein’s scorekeeper, Ackley took time — an official’s timeout, so to speak — to talk about his scorekeeping career and ironman streak that would impress Cal Ripken Jr.
Aguilar: What is it about scorekeeping that has given you the passion to do it for 50 years?
Ackley: It was the best seat in the house, for sure. I’ve always enjoyed the bench workers, the timers and the announcers. I started going down to the state tournaments in 1961, when it was still at the old Huff gym (in Champaign), and then two years later they went to the Assembly Hall. I’ve made every state tournament, except one, since 1961. I just enjoy high school basketball. It’s just an outstanding game. The student-athlete has to work so hard — to keep his grades, to represent the school and to play. The kids I’m most proud of are the kids that come out and practice and they know they might not get 2-3 minutes in a game or — for crying out loud — 2-3 minutes a year, unless we were getting run over or if we were running over somebody. Those kids are so dedicated. They work so hard to make our first-string kids better.
Aguilar: You’ve witnessed more than a thousand games. Which one or ones stand out?
Ackley: The worst one was the (84-83) triple overtime loss to Libertyville (and Matt Heldman vs. Mundelein and Kyle Kessel) in the sectional finals (at Waukegan, in 1994). I’ll never forget that. I even have the tape of that. I watch it every once and a while. That was unbelievable. Triple overtime. Oh, my gosh. And against Libertyville, which is my alma mater. That was probably thee most memorable game.
Aguilar: What do you remember about it?
Ackley: It was so exciting, back and forth, back and forth. It could have been won by either team in regulation. It could have been won by either team in any of the three overtimes. And then it was won by a kid named Lee (Chad Lee). It was a 5- or 6-foot shot, kind of a lean-in, throw-it-up-and-see-what-happens shot. You can’t get anything more exciting than that. That was a fun game.
Aguilar: What are your memories about the state tournament in the 1960s and early ’70s at the Assembly Hall?
Ackley: There were just some outstanding high school basketball teams — from Evanston, Thornton, Thornridge, Maine South, Pekin. Those kids in those days were men. Oh, my goodness. It was just so much fun to be in that nice arena. That was kind of a turbulent time with the race riots, and yet you could go to that basketball tournament and every one of those kids, whether they were from Chicago or Champaign or wherever, behaved themselves.
Aguilar: You’ve had nearly perfect attendance since becoming Mundelein’s scorekeeper, even making road trips the last few years with the varsity to Washington, D.C., Arizona and California. What’s your secret?
Ackley: I was blessed that I never got really sick in the 50 years until this year, and then I missed the finals of our Thanksgiving tournament. It was the first time that I had ever missed a North Chicago game. And then I missed the Lake Forest game (last Friday) at Lake Forest. That was the first time I had ever missed a Lake Forest game. Basically, up until these last two, I had missed two games since 1962.
Aguilar: You go back so long ago that you actually played when the free-throw lane was much narrower. (In 1951, the lane was widened from 6 feet to 12 feet). What was that like?
Ackley: If you got a big kid in there, you couldn’t get near the basket. I played against Dave Allen and Waukegan at a Thanksgiving tournament. It must have been around 1946. Dave was quite a ballplayer. He was 6-5 or something. He was the biggest kid I ever saw in my life. With the narrow lane, he would back up and he’d step on my shoes! I couldn’t move. Here I am, a sophomore and all of about 145 pounds. He’s about 210, 220. (Laughing) So, finally, I’m pushing him to get him off my feet, and the officials were calling the fouls on me! That (widening the lane) was a big change. That got the guys out a little bit.
Aguilar: You’ve also seen the introduction of the three-point shot, five-second rule and change to three-man officiating crews. Any other changes you’d like to see in the game?
Ackley: I really think it’s about where it needs to be right now. I can’t think of anything that would improve the game.
Aguilar: What other memories do you have of the old days?
Ackley: It used to be that they had odd and even shirts. If you were the away team, you had the odd numbers. Sometimes the kids would forget to wear the right uniform and (laughing) I’d have to tape up a number.
Aguilar: So this season is the end for you, seriously? No more Jim Ackley in his zebra shirt sitting at the scorer’s table?
Ackley: I’m old (chuckles). I enjoy the game. I will always want to go see it. But I’m also very conscientious. I don’t want to sit there just because it’s Jim Ackley sitting there. I want to sit there because they know I can be the best official there is doing that job. So far, I’ve been able to maintain that — or really try hard. So I think this is probably my last year.
Aguilar: Last question. How’s the golf game?
Ackley: I haven’t touched a club since June 7. That’s six months, man. ... That’s forever.
He’s an expert on forever.
Mundelein is forever grateful for his spectacular service.
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