Story by Mark Hertzberg
Mike Rupnow is retired. Tell that with a straight face to anyone who looks at his calendar.
Sports were a recreational and competitive outlet for Mike Rupnow when he grew up. He played baseball, basketball and tennis at Menominee Falls North High School.
Sports became his profession in 1983 when he moved to Racine as activities director at Park High School.
Now Rupnow enjoys sports as retirement careers, following his retirement as activities director of J.I. Case High School in March 2011. He had served as principal of Knapp School, and as a sub-school principal at Park before going to Case.
His only firm plan following retirement was to continue to referee baseball, basketball and football. The other stuff just happened. Consider this schedule juggling act: Rupnow may be called to substitute teach or administrate at a Racine Unified school during the day, before working as an usher at a Milwaukee Brewers night game, before waking up at 5:30 a.m. the next morning for his twice-weekly stint changing pin placements on the greens at the Ives Grove golf course on Highway 20.
Rupnow began officiating baseball and basketball games in 2000, after Nick, the middle of his three children, graduated from high school. He added football to the mix last fall. He officiates the three sports throughout southeastern Wisconsin.
A Brewers fan, he attended 20 games a year. Conversations with two ushers led to his applying for a job as an usher. He worked 50-60 games at Miller Park each of the last two seasons. Rupnow thinks that both his love of the game and his past career helped him get the job. “I had a chance through my background in athletics and supervision in athletics, working with people, adults and kids, and I’m a fan of baseball. I enjoy watching and talking baseball,” he said.
Finally, there is his job on the golf greens. “I found a way to be able to play golf the least expensive way I can. I can pay less than the average guy (by working at the golf course). That’s living the dream, too!”
Rupnow’s perspective on officiating changed once he donned his own black and white jersey.
“As a parent and former coach, I would get upset with officials, but it’s really changed my perspective on officiating. My first time as an activities director (at Park), I was not an official. My second time (at Case), I was an official, and I had a different perspective on their job and the difficulty of their job.”
He was concerned with how his coaches represented their school. “I would tell coaches to back off. Not in the heat of a contest, it would be afterwards in our discussion. I certainly appreciate a person’s passion for the event and the job, and what they are trying to do, but I would try to get them to remember they are representing the school and are a model for the kids.
“School is an educational setting, and we try to develop character in the kids and try to get them to respect officials and what they do.”
As a referee, he knows that perfection, or the perception of perfection, can be elusive, “You always say you’re going to make 50 of the people happy at the games. When both coaches come up and say to you, ‘Good game, thanks,’ and so forth, I guess that’s the most satisfying thing you can get. Maybe you’ll walk to your car and parents will say, ‘Good job, ref,’ but not real often.
“Typically you kind of remember the negative stuff more than the positive. When you know you blew a call and you didn’t get it right, it’s embarrassing. It kind of gnaws at you for days. You don’t get every one right. You know you made a bad call.”
His job as an usher carries no such worries. His satisfaction comes from greeting and helping fans, “when you’re greeting fans entering, and when they are leaving, thanking them for coming, making them feel like they are important arriving and leaving.” Sometimes he will offer to take family pictures for fans with their cameras. “It’s kind of a feel-good thing for me.”
The occasional rowdy fan can be challenging, but he draws on his school experience. “It can be a hassle when people are drunk and you are trying to get them to not stand up in front of other people. If two fans are going at it, like Cubs-Brewers fans, you try to get them to tone it down so it doesn’t get physically aggressive. You try to defuse the situation as best you can, before turning it over to a supervisor or a police officer. It’s kind of like a hallway at a high school.”
Rupnow does not have to commit to a schedule as an usher for the Brewers more than a month in advance. He appreciates that flexibility, especially after a Cubs usher told him that ushers who work at Wrigley Field have to commit for the whole season in February. He was able to work all of the 2011 championship games at Miller Park. An avid fan, he occasionally peeks at the action while working. “It’s hard to do the job and not watch the game. You really have an interest in the game, I have to admit that.”
He is happy to break 90 when he golfs after work at Ives Grove. In his spare time, he plays tennis more often, whether indoors in winter or outdoors during the summer.
Rupnow occasionally still has panic dreams about the job he retired from two years ago. As for the present, “People ask me, ‘How’s life?’ I will use that phrase, ‘I’m living a dream.’ ”