‘My happy spot’: Veteran high school officials keep coming back

Officiating and high school sports doesn’t seem like a marriage made in heaven these days.

Fernando and Noreen Rodriguez of Arlington Heights respectfully disagree.

“I’ll say, ‘I’m talking on the headset with the lovely girl over there,’” Fernando said, with a smile, of officiating girls lacrosse matches with his wife Noreen. “I’ll say, ‘See that lovely girl over there? That’s my wife.’ They’ll say, ‘Oh my god, that’s so cute.’”

Noreen laughed and said, “I hear all this in my microphone and I roll my eyes.”

Bill Orris, affectionately known as “Pastor Bill,” has also officiated his share of weddings, including those of officials. And he’s been an official in baseball, basketball and football for nearly a half-century, which leads him to ask, “can you imagine how many games I’ve done?”

In the last decade, he’s even been called on to sing the national anthem before some of them. The first time was an impromptu performance at a big boys basketball game when Glenbrook North visited rival Glenbrook South and the taped version didn’t work.

“A fan said, ‘We hope you can referee as good as you sing,’” Orris said with a laugh. “Since then word got around that I was the singing referee.”

The horror stories related to the concerning decline in the number of officials at all levels of athletics are prevalent. But there are also stories like those of the Rodriguezes and Orris that underscore the joy they get in giving kids a positive experience.

Happy wife, happy life

Fernando Rodriguez got into officiating around 2003 with basketball and baseball, which he played, and then he gravitated toward boys and, ultimately, girls lacrosse. He’s also done field hockey. Eight years ago he suggested to Noreen that she join him for lacrosse and basketball.

Noreen wasn’t worried about basketball because she had a playing background. Lacrosse was a different story. Midway through her first varsity game, she thought it would also be her last because it was so physical and everyone was screaming and yelling.

Fernando told her it would get better. Now Noreen officiates the top games in the Chicago area, including the state finals. She was the IHSA girls lacrosse official of the year in 2023 and is the secretary of the Illinois Womens Lacrosse Umpiring Board.

So what happens if the two officials have a bit of a disagreement on the field? Fernando laughs and falls back on the “happy wife, happy life” theory that Noreen is always right.

  Noreen Rodriguez helps her husband, Fernando, with his microphone and earpiece before a lacrosse match this season. John Starks/

“In basketball he’s right, and in lacrosse I’m right,” Noreen said with a smile

“That’s what makes us good officials together,” Fernando said. “We understand and accept our strengths and weaknesses. Girls lacrosse, Noreen is a much better official. Basketball, she knows that’s my strength.”

Fernando said one of the biggest lessons he received about officiating came at a clinic from Palatine’s Ed Curtin, who was the assignment chair for Mid-Suburban League boys and girls basketball for 17 years and passed away in 2009.

“He said you need to remember that for those couple of hours that day, those are the most important two hours for that kid,” Fernando said. “You’ve got to give the best you can do regardless of the level. Let the kids know you’re human and on their side.”

Noreen also officiates swimming because it gives her a chance to remain close to their daughter Erin, who took third in the state in 2008 in the 200-yard individual medley for Buffalo Grove and coaches in the successful boys and girls programs at Lyons Twp. In lacrosse they prefer to work the girls games because they are less physical than the boys. In basketball they typically officiate lower-level high school and middle school games.

They don’t hide the fact they are a happily married officiating couple.

“We’re a perfect yin and yang and best friends,” Fernando said. “I say she’s my best friend and I get to spend time with my best friend. At the scorer’s table I’ll say, ‘Where can I take my lovely bride for a date?’ We’re both sports fans and love sports.”

A Man For All Seasons

Bill Orris was in junior high school in 1976 in the Pittsburgh suburb of McKeesport when the umpire was a no-show for his younger sister’s softball game.

Bill Orris, in the white hat, was in junior high school in 1976 when he officiated his first athletic event. Photo courtesy of Marty Maciaszek

“I went out and loved it,” said Orris, who is the chaplain and community outreach coordinator at the Northern Illinois Recovery Center in Crystal Lake and is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Covenant Church.

When Orris turned 16 he got his officiating license and stayed with it when he came to Illinois to attend Wheaton College and then enter the seminary at Trinity International University in Deerfield. He fondly recalled umpiring a Hoffman Estates player named Paul Belo, who just concluded a long and illustrious baseball coaching career at Fremd and Palatine.

“Pastor Bill,” who now lives in Oakwood Hills, continued to officiate as he moved to Washington state and Minnesota from 1988-99 before returning to the Chicago area. He has worked five state football finals with two crews, four state baseball finals and boys and girls supersectionals in basketball.

“It’s so amazing, the community in it with your fellow umpires, officials and coaches,” Orris said.

Never was that bond more important for him than in August 2015 when his son Billy died in a motorcycle accident at age 26.

“I always call it my umpiring family,” Orris said. “When Billy died they all showed up. Coaches from every sport showed up.”

A Rewarding Challenge

  Husband and wife Fernando and Noreen Rodriguez are officials in numerous sports. John Starks/

The Rodriguezes and Orris have seen and heard about the many negative situations for officials. Two of the Rodriguez children tried officiating but had a bad experience. They are concerned there aren’t enough younger candidates in the pipeline.

Orris, who is the assignor for North Suburban Conference football, trains newer officials in freshman and JV games. He will go up to parents and tell them there is no benefit to screaming at someone just starting out.

“They just won’t come back,” Orris said. “I’ve had officials say, ‘Pastor Bill, I just can’t take it.’”

But Fernando and Noreen Rodriguez and Bill Orris will keep coming back. They don’t want kids to miss experiences that matter so much because officials weren’t available.

“You get recharged working with all these teenagers,” Noreen said.

“It keeps me young at heart and young physically,” Fernando said. “It makes me happy in my life. For two to three hours a day, that’s my happy spot.”

They’ll get no dispute from Orris.

“I’ll still go as long as I can,” he said. “I’m in shape, I hustle and run so I still want to keep doing it. I love it.”

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