Story by Larry Kline
Photos by George Ferguson
Ralph Jimison will no longer drive hundreds of miles on weekends to hear people he doesn't know insult him and question his eyesight.
He might miss it, though - if only for the laughs.
But what he'll miss more than any blind-mouse joke or booing fan will be the kids, the student athletes he's watched battle on the wrestling mat - the ones he's watched grow up over the last three decades.
After 33 years of donning the black-and-white stripes of a wrestling official, Jimison is hanging up his uniform. He's a little older, a little slower. And he's got the grandkids to wrestle with.
It's been a good run, he said this week.
“(Officiating) kept me close to the sport,” Jimison said. “I always thought of wrestling as sort of an extended family. The people you meet and hang with are quality-type people.”
Jimison, who works as a systems electrician for BNSF Railway, started wrestling in the seventh grade. He continued on through high school, and wrestled for two years at North Dakota State School of Science.
An older brother convinced him in 1973 to try officiating - “For beer money, that's how he put it” - and he was soon hooked. Jimison has since worked 17 state wrestling tournaments, including a dozen all-class state meets. He's paced the mats at six NAIA national wrestling tournaments. He's officiated all over Montana, along with tourneys in Washington, North Dakota and Minnesota.
Ask someone in the local wrestling community, and they'll tell you Jimison was at the top of his game.
“As an official, Ralph is one of the best around. I'm real sad to see him go,” Havre High wrestling coach Scott Filius said. “He was very knowledgeable. ... I felt he was one of the top two or three refs in the state.
“A lot of officials, you get nervous with them,” Filius added. “(With Jimison) you always knew you were going to get a fair shake. You weren't going to get any breaks, but you knew you were going to get what was coming.”
Jimison was an official when Filius wrestled in high schooland college. They crossed paths again when Jimison was Filius' assistant at HHS.
“(Coaching) was more rewarding because you got to know the kids,” Jimison said. “You ... work with the kids and watch their successes. It makes a guy feel good when they have success.”
Jimison lists HHS' state championships in 1997, 1999 and 2001 among his favorite wrestling memories.
“He reached a lot of kids as a coach,” Filius said.
Jimison spent plenty of time working behind the scenes, Filius added, helping with fundraisers and donating time at the local wrestling club.
Dan Boucher, who officiated with him for 21 years, said Jimison is known as fair and knowledgeable.
“He always worked to improve in his coaching or his officiating and taught me a tremendous amount,” Boucher said. “He was willing to share his knowledge with people. We spent a lot of hours on the road together ... and we would use that time to talk about different wrestling situations and rules.
“One of the things you have to respect a lot is that he really cares about the kids,” Boucher added. “That was his primary focus.”
Jimison, whose two sons wrestled, said he's worked his fair share of youth and middle school matches.
“It's always fun to go see the new and upcoming wrestlers. To keep tabs on them,” he said. “You've got to be a little bit more on your toes with them to protect them from injury, because you just don't know which way they're going to go.
“The college is easier to officiate because you can almost predict what's going to happen,” he added.
Jimison compared a wrestling match with two solid athletes to a pair of gunfighters. The low-scoring matches are usually the best ones, he added.
“You see which one's going to blink first ... and the other's going to take advantage of it,” he said. “If you have two quality kids, they aren't going to get scored on easily. It's more like a chess game for the wrestlers on the mat.”
Sometimes things get a little rough.
Years ago, when Jimison's older brother came to Northern Montana College to officiate with him, a Montana State University wrestler threw a punch at a Northern wrestler. Jimison's brother threw the kid over the athlete's team bench.
Jimison's never had to take things that far, he added.
Some of his favorite memories include officiating alongside his two older brothers at his first divisional tourney in Sidney. He enjoyed watching his two sons grow up with wrestling, and his daughter joining in as a wrestling cheerleader in high school.
He's also heard a few good jokes made at his expense.
“I tried to tune (fans) out,” Jimison said. “There were times when you could hear it and deal with it. I've heard a lot of good sayings over the years. A lot of good slams.”
At times, the fans made him smile because it was obvious they didn't know what was really happening on the mat, he added.
“I always enjoyed the coaches that had their subtle little hints ... that let you know what their opinion was without stepping over the line.”
He said his wife, Micki, will now only lose him two weekends per winter - one for the holiday tourney in Great Falls and another for the state meet - instead of most.
“I've got to thank her for all the years of keeping a sense of humor,” Jimison said.