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Area officiating icon Gratz passes away at 58

FOR LOVE OF THE GAME — Umpire David Gratz (far left) carefully watches an unidentified New Ulm VFW runner safely cross the plate before Fairmont catcher Zach Jorgensen receives the throw during baseball action at Herb Wolf Field in Fairmont during the summer of 2018. Gratz, a long-time high school official in baseball, basketball, football and softball, died Saturday at the age of 58. (Photo by Charlie Sorrells/Sentinel Archives)

FAIRMONT — When I learned of Dave Gratz’s passing Saturday night, I had to read the Fairmont Baseball Association’s Facebook post again. And again. And again. I just could not seem to process the three sentences.

He was gone.

When? Where? How? Why? All those questions crowded my thoughts. There must be another Dave Gratz, right? Not my 58-year-old friend who seemed ageless when he sprinted up-and-down hardwood courts throughout southern Minnesota while officiating high basketball games.

Not the guy with the memorable dimpled grin who not only called balls and strikes on the prep diamond, but taught the nuisances of the game of baseball to aspiring young athletes.

Not the hard-working craftsman and owner of The Woodworks in Fairmont, and the dedicated husband, son and father who spoke so genuinely about how proud he was of his entire family.

Despite experiencing the first stage of coping with death — denial, I moved past the stages of anger, bargaining and depression. How? By thinking of all the good conversations … well, maybe just listening (Dave would appreciate this statement coming from me!) with him during the past three decades.

His voice seems filled with extreme contentment when he talked about his wife, Kathy — a teacher at St. Paul Lutheran School in Fairmont, and the life that they have made in this community.

His eyes lit up when he recently talked to me about his son, Ben — a former standout student-athlete at Fairmont High School, working as a field service engineer at Cardinal Glass Industries in Spring Green, Wisconsin.

His grin widened from ear-to-ear when he updated me on his daughter, Briana — who, like her brother, earned high academic honors throughout high school and college. He talked inspiringly about how she battled back from major knee injuries to compete in collegiate track. She then transformed her own recoveries into helping others get back on track through her bachelor’s and masters degrees by accepting a job in athletic training at Methodist University in Fayetteville, North Carolina.

Those thoughts of him bring a smile to my face, as he did to countless numbers of people he met along his many travels officiating football, basketball, baseball and softball.

“He was always positive and always had a smile on his face,” said Cory Hainy, current Fairmont head softball coach and a member of Dave’s prep football crew for the past 18 years. “Everywhere we went to call a game, he knew somebody or knew somebody that knew somebody else that he would connect with prior to kickoff. People just seems to be drawn to him.”

Tom Bromeland, a long-time MSHSL prep sports official from Blue Earth, agreed with Hainy’s assessment of their mutual friend and colleague.

“Before I first started officiating with the high school league 25 years ago, Dave and I worked together in youth sports (in Blue Earth),” said Bromeland. “I can’t remember going to a place where he didn’t know someone.”

“He was always a fun guy to work with and of course, he was a bit talkative, you know,” Bromeland added with a fond chuckle in remembering his long-time friend. “He was very proud of his kids and his wife Kathy.

“He’s going to be missed. He’s a good one. It’s shocking news that he’s gone.”

Fairmont athletic director and head football coach Mat Mahoney said Gratz’s positive outlook and passion for officiating games throughout the region simply cannot be replaced.

“The Fairmont sports world lost a great ambassador to high school athletics with his passing,” said Mahoney. “I could always count on him if I needed an official, and he always gave 100 percent in everything he did.

“My condolences go out to the entire Gratz family and everyone who had the opportunity to know him.”

While only time will help us eventually deal with your passing, we will always remember you fondly. Rest in peace, my friend.

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