ESCANABA - Most MHSAA officials are specialists in their field and have a deep understanding for the games they work on a nightly basis.
For John F. Ziemba of Escanaba, or "Z" as he is affectionately known in various communities, officiating is more than just a paycheck, its a passion, one that has guided his life.
"I was raised by my grandparents to be a volunteer, and having been raised on a farm, I did a lot of work helping people," Ziemba said.
John F. Ziemba
Ziemba was recently selected by the Upper Peninsula Sportswriters and Sportscasters Association as this year's recipient of the Jim Trethewey Distinguished Service Award, which goes to people who make exceptional contributions to Upper Peninsula athletics.
Throughout his life, "Z" has been involved in virtually every aspect of softball and baseball. He has officiated at the high school. National Softball Association (NSA) and Little League levels, coached at the Little League level, tended the grounds, played baseball, and helped found and manage the now-defunct Men's Modified Fastpitch League with U.P. Sports Hall of Famer Dennis Grall.
Ziemba, who is nearing his 50th season as an official (20 with the MHSAA), also officiates high school and NCAA volleyball games along with his son John Ziemba Jr. The father-son combo has reffed together for 25 years.
"I consider myself to be a very good official, and (John) is a notch above me," Ziemba said. "It's been a blessing to be able to work with my son for 25 years. When we're announced before the game, they say 'John Ziemba and John Ziemba' and people go 'huh?'"
For many decades, much of what Ziemba did was on a volunteer basis. He traveled across the Upper Peninsula and into Wisconsin, tending fields, umpiring games without pay for many years.
"When you umpire, a lot of it, you don't get paid," Ziemba said. "I just like working with kids. Being a teacher, I worked with kids, and my wife was always there helping. That was a big factor."
When the Little League season rolls around every year, there is one name that constantly comes up in District 10 and District 11 - John Ziemba.
This past season during two Little League state championships at the Minor and Senior League levels held in Escanaba, Ziemba was the Umpire in Chief (UIC) for District 10 Chairman Don Howes.
"I was away for a while, but last year they had an emergency and I filled in to help host the two state tournaments," said Ziemba
In the NSA, where "Z" has been a UIC for 13 years and been recognized for various awards, his travels have taken him to Indianapolis, Tennessee, Peoria, Ill. and Indiana. However, as Ziemba said, one of the highest forms of recognition for an official is being asked to umpire at the higher levels.
"Getting to do a Junior League World Series, which I did in Taylor, Mich., is a form of recognition. You have to be nominated for that," Ziemba explained. "I've also worked in Marquette and umpired a lot in District 11. I've umpired at the states at all levels, boys and girls.
Ziemba has also umpired in the Eastern European Junior League regional tournament which took him to Poland to official games involving teams from Saudi Arabia, Yugoslavia and the Netherlands among others.
"It was a very moving experience to work in that field and the people were truly nice. I took my wife with me and we made it a small vacation," Ziemba said. "But what was unique about the field, there was a big sign on the back fence saying that the field was dedicated to a famous Polish Major League player from the St. Louis Cardinals - Stan Musial. He funded the field and it was in fantastic shape."
In volleyball, Ziemba and his son are a common appearance at Escanaba games, but "Z" also officiates NCAA games from time to time.
"I've officiated at the Junior College level at Northland University, and recently I got a call from Steve Reed who is the assistant Athletic Director at NMU, saying they needed an official," said Ziemba. "I've been exposed to the upper level and it's fantastic to watch them play."
Ziemba has worked with and learned much from a variety of colleagues throughout the years and is grateful to have had the opportunity to work with each one of them.
"Dave Tureene, who passed away some years ago, was a great officiating person and I learned a lot from him, just a fantastic guy to work for, and a big thanks to Don Howes. He's been a big help and I was his UIC for many years," said Ziemba. "Jim Cannon, just a fantastic gentleman. He gave me my green card for being a groundskeeper and showed me how to get a field ready in an hour and a half after heavy rain. There's been some great officials in the Upper Peninsula."
The Jim Trethewey Award is named in honor of the former sports editor and news editor of the Marquette Mining Journal and founding member of the U.P. Sports Hall of Fame.
Previous recipients of the award include: Gil Heard, Mickey Johnson, Jerry Pangrazzi of Marquette; Gene Maki, Wakefield; Frank Rodman, Hermansville; John Chylek, Jerry Cvengros and Karl Dickson, Escanaba; Red Lacousiere, Menominee; Jim Cannon, Gladstone; Dennis Brooks, Sault Ste. Marie; Burt Boyum, Ishpeming; El and Norma Harger, Munising; Rich Sunila, Stephenson; Ron Trethewey, Ironwood; Jim Halvorsen, Brimley; Donna Blood, Scott Lloyd, L'Anse; Patty Gagnon, Negaunee; Roger Morrison, Pickford; Dick Ketcik, Manistique; Victor Keefer, Ontonagon; Cory Roell, North Dickinson; Paul Gerard, Gladstone; Art Viens, Kingsford.