A man of unwavering integrity who had an infectious laugh. A defuser of tense situations. An invaluable Central Coast liaison between sports officials and schools. And one who took great care to NOT draw attention to himself when he was working on the gridiron, basketball court or baseball diamond.
Those are some of the ways in which several close friends remembered the late Mel Gatson in recent remarks to the Times. Gatson, a Lompoc resident and long-time sports official, died at age 74 on Nov. 3.
Gatson officiated many sports, including high school, junior college and NCAA baseball, high school, junior college and women's NCAA Division 1 basketball and high school football. Gatson was also a long-time umpire at the semi-pro Santa Maria Indians baseball games.
"He was a great man on the field and a better man off it," said Dwayne Finley. Finley, who said he knew Gatson for more than 30 years, is a veteran sports official himself and the CIF Southern Section liaison between officials and schools for the San Fernando Valley.
For years, Gatson was his Southern Section counterpart for the Central Coast. The liaison has multiple dealings with officials and schools, including the handling of discipline issues.
"He was very, very good at it," Finley said.
Veteran local sports official John Salter, another Lompoc resident, was Gatson's best friend. Salter has been a fixture on the Central Coast sports scene for decades, calling junior college softball games, as well as being a fixture as an official on the Central Coast high school scene.
"We would talk every day for 45 years," Salter said of Gatson. "We'd talk morning, noon and night. During his dying days, I would get up 45 minutes before leaving (for a work assignment) and I'd talk to him."
Salter worked closely with Gatson overseeing the Vandenberg Air Force youth and adult leagues. "He was one of my partners," said Salter. "Everyone trusted Mel."
Bobby Kennedy is the Los Padres Athletic League Officials Association President and has known Gatson since 1999.
"Both sides, the officials and the schools, trusted Mel," when Gatson was the Central Coast liaison, said Kennedy. "That was very important. He was very good at that."
"He did a great job as the Central Coast liaison," said former official and Cuesta College baseball coach Dan Marple, another longtime close friend of Gatson's.
"I'd joke with him that the only reason he got the job was because he was Black, and he'd just laugh his head off. He had an infectious laugh.
"Coaches liked and trusted Mel so much that they just didn't argue with him," said Marple. "Coaches often didn't come out and argue (baseball calls) simply because Gatson was umpiring.
"When I was a coach at Cuesta and I saw Mel coming on to the diamond before a game, I knew the game was in good hands," Marple said. "And when I was an umpire and saw that Mel would be my partner, I knew the game would go smoothly."
Marple said that after games, other officials would ask Gatson if he wanted to go with them to go out to eat. "He'd say, 'No, I need to get back to (wife) Judy.'"
Some years ago, Sports Illustrated Magazine profiled a Major League baseball umpire. That particular umpire made it a point to attract as little notice as possible to himself on the diamond.
"Anyone (notice the umpire)?," during the game, a player asked teammates in the team locker room afterward.
"Barely," someone replied.
His friends and colleagues said Gatson aspired to be that type of official - and succeeded.
"He taught me to be invisible," on the baseball diamond, said Sidney Williamson, another official and close friend who worked with Gatson for years. Williamson is the former coordinator of umpires for the California Collegiate League. The Santa Maria Indians organization is a former member of the CCL.
"He was the best man at my wedding," Williamson, who lives in Los Angeles, said. "I've known him since 1989. I first met him at a SCCUBA Division I umpires meeting. He was in the Air Force at the time.
Williamson said, "I worked with him at least four or five games a year, umpiring (NCAA) Division 1, Division 2, Division 3, junior college games. His ability, his integrity. That's what stood out to me."
Finley and long-time local sports official Rick Wilson said Gatson had a knack for helping upset coaches and players cool down during tense situations.
"He was probably one of the few who, I would like to call it, was a great de-escalator," said Finley. "He worked well with players and coaches."
Wilson, who has worked many Central Coast games in many sports for many years, said, "The book will tell you, say, 'If a player gets two technicals, he has to be ejected.' You can't always go by the book. You have to work with people."
"Mel had great patience, and he helped teach me that. He was one of my mentors, and he helped me become a mentor to others." Along with his other officiating duties, Wilson is the president of the Red Oak Soccer Referee Association, which is associated with Orcutt Youth Soccer.
Gaston and Mike Ostini went way back. "I went to umpires school with him in 1979," said Ostini. "He had just moved to Lompoc from Riverside in 1978."
Ostini, an official in several sports up and down the Central Coast for decades, has had administrative responsibilities regarding officials for years and is the assigner for football officials on the Central Coast.
"We worked a lot of games together, high school, junior college baseball, the Santa Maria Indians," said Ostini.
"He was so level-headed and had so much integrity."
Larry Harlow is another who knew Gatson well.
"Mel and I met at umpires school in 1974 when I was 19," said Harlow. "Mel was about seven years older than I am.
"I umpired pro ball for four years and got up to Double A. Mel and I umpired Pac-10 and Big West games together."
Harlow said Gatson did him a favor for the last game Harlow worked. "It was the first game at Baggett Stadium at Cal Poly, Stanford vs. Cal Poly," Harlow said. "The four-man crew consisted of Mel, Mike Ostini, Dan Marple and myself. Mel knew it was my last day, so he let me umpire first base instead of third," which Harlow had been originally scheduled to work.
"Working third base is more boring. There's more action at first, with pickoff attempts and so forth."
When it came to umpiring, "Mel was very good at knowing the rules," said Harlow.
It is difficult, Gatson's friends said, to believe he is gone.
"This has not been easy for me," said Kennedy. "He's helped me become a leader in (the officiating) avocation."
Salter said, "Just three weeks ago, someone picked up officiating books for him from Dan Shea," a prominent area sports official, said Salter. "(Gatson) was looking forward to doing some more officiating. He'd be talking, laughing.
"Sometimes I'll be talking to someone on the phone and I'll just break down and tell him I'll have to call him back later," said Salter. "It's hard to believe he's gone. People will tell me, 'Well, he's in a better place now.' I'm a Christian man, I believe that, but what about me? I'm here without him."
Salter said, "It's hard, but I'll get through this."
Gatson served in the Air Force for 22 years, enlisting during the Vietnam War and working the cryogenics field, making liquid oxygen that was used in aircraft.
A memorial service for Gatson was held Friday in the Lompoc High School gymnasium. Salter requested that schools rearrange their sports schedule so that no area athletic events take place from 3 to 6 p.m. that day so that all officials who want to attend the memorial service for Gatson were able to do so.
Gatson will be buried at Riverside National Ceremony at a date TBD.