Litchfield, CT/ April 24, 2020/ The Register Citizen — When time has slowed to a crawl for many in the Northwest Corner and around the world in separate bubbles of waiting for restarts – schools, jobs, restaurants, sports…life – soon-to-be-92-year-old Jack Fitzgerald is celebrating.
He’s one of four 2020 inductees into the Torrington Athletic Hall of Fame, along with Jacob Eanniello, Chris Fritch and Eric Traub.
“My feet were off the ground for three or four days after I got the news,” he grins by phone from quarantine at Brandywine assisted living center in Litchfield, where he’s thrived for the past eight or nine years.
In the first of our alphabetically-published features recently about an induction class waiting another year for their official banquet, 33-year-old Jacob Eanniello represented the hope for things to come while honoring the great accomplishments he’s already achieved.
Now, Jack Fitzgerald represents a time to reflect on what’s already been built.
While Eanniello caught the fleeting fame of a dazzling athletic career achieved through determination and grit in overcoming major obstacles, Fitzgerald’s is the story of one of many who semi-quietly spend a lifetime underpinning a system that builds a major part of our community’s backbone.
Fitzgerald worked for the Post Office in a career that spanned 28 years in the Torrington office, then another long term in charge of the Harwinton branch.
“Ninety-eight percent of the people are good; the other two percent are PITA’s (pains in the ass),” he laughs from his perspective on a job in which he interacted with more of the area’s population than most shopping malls saw in their heyday.
It was a fitting backdrop for his other career – in sports and the community – first as manager of son Mark’s Torrington Little League team, starting in 1967; a charter member of Torrington Midget Football’s Board of Trustees for the Pop Warner League; coaching in the CYO Basketball League, then on to more than 30 years as a baseball/softball umpire while also serving on important area community boards.
“I just enjoyed viewing it,” says Fitzgerald, a captain of the high school’s long-defunct rifle team who couldn’t play sports because he worked at a part-time job through his high school career.
So do many other parents, who often lose interest after their kids move on.
“He waited until I was through playing (to become a sports official),” says son Mark, a THS quarterback and shortstop who went on to play football for Springfield College.
“You have to have a desire to be part of the action,” says Fitzgerald, explaining his willingness to take on a tough job in sports as well as the community.
That desire simmered a long time after his dad, Jack, Sr., took his young son to baseball games in the old Industrial League where Dad was a catcher for a team sponsored by The Torrington Company.
It lasted through a four-year stint in the Coast Guard, where he lost sight in one eye in an accident.
Few people knew that as Fitzgerald worked his way through 30-plus years of assignments in the NVL, Berkshire League and area prep schools to become one of the most respected officials in the area.
“You have to anticipate the play and be there to see it,” says Fitzgerald, who changed his mind about revealing the handicap he overcame.
“They’re not going to holler at me now,” he laughed in the echo of a sport in which fans love to call umpires blind.
Competence came first, followed by an attitude that remained calmly in charge, no matter what.
“I tried not to continue the argument,” Fitzgerald says regarding the inevitable disputed calls for every umpire. “I’d hear out the coach, then tell him (or her), ‘You’ve had your say. Now go back to the bench.’ If he or she didn’t want to do that, I’d give them the thumb.
“If I made the call, in my heart, that was the right call.”
That competence and attitude on the field were naturals for off-the-field calls to duty as well. In sports, as an active member of the Fuessenich Park Renovation Committee in the late ‘90s to early 2000’s, then its natural extension as part of a Torrington Twisters organizing committee.
“We brought (former MLB Commissioner) Fay Vincent up to help us decide to go to a collegiate wooden-bat league rather than try for a minor league affiliation,” Fitzgerald said.
Fitzgerald’s competence and attitude were also beacons for other community assignments like the Foundation Board for Northwest Community College (“We tried to see how we could improve the college”) and Torrington’s Board of Tax Review.
The objective umpire sums up the tax job like this: “They’re grieved, but the guidelines are specific.”
In our current pandemic situation, he’s back on the field viewing figurative hollering fans and players from the same umpiring stance: “What upsets me right now is all those people who think they’re smarter than the professionals,” he says.
Jack Fitzgerald waits like the rest of us for a better time next year when the only hollers he hears at the Hall of Fame Banquet are certain to be cheers.
Meanwhile, his example serves as inspiration for the rest of us to consider being more “involved in the action” of a community when we can.