If high school athletics in the tri-county area have a guardian angel, she pushed the games we know and love away from a lightning strike or an oncoming car this week when Jeff Turnbull chose to stay on as athletic director at Dirigo High School.

Hyperbole? Not I, said the big, buffoonish sports writer.

You’re wondering how the survival of one administrator at a mid-sized, Class C institution in the foothills preserves an entire genre. It’s simple mathematics, really.

Educators are like doctors, missionaries and any other profession with the potential to save the world. Because the headaches invariably exceed the benefits, there are never enough good ones.

When one of the best in the business abandons ship, especially in a small and economically downtrodden market such as Maine, the net loss is equivalent to a dozen newspaper columnists leaving the industry to go sell vacuum cleaners.

Turnbull, who submitted his resignation earlier this month for personal reasons that are both very real and very much nobody’s business, is a credit to his underappreciated craft.

He would be a terrific AD even if Dirigo didn’t contend for state and regional championships in every sports season, which it does. He would be an unsung hero in the communities of Dixfield, Canton, Carthage and Peru even if the Cougars weren’t constantly expanding opportunities for student-athletes, which they have by reviving their football program and adding skiing and golf teams during his tenure.

Fans and friends of Dirigo athletics should make a short journey up Route 2, buy every shred of construction paper at Wal-Mart and give Turnbull a giant, homemade thank-you card for staying.

Tireless in his approach to the job and limitless in his love for the community, Turnbull sets a standard in his field because he gets it. He understands that youth sports should be exclusively about the kids. Not the parents. Not the faculty. Certainly not himself.

Authority and a boost in job title, if not pay, often do funny things to otherwise normal guys. I’ve known many teachers who advanced through the ranks to the level of administrator, and I would have sworn they spent an intensive training session in anti-charm school or underwent a personality transplant. It is staggering how much a suit and tie change them.

Not Turnbull. At a basketball tournament where principals and athletic directors are easier to sniff out than lawyers in an emergency room, I challenge you to a game of “Where’s Waldo?” and defy you to pick out the Dirigo AD next February.

Sorry, but you won’t stand a chance. That’s because Jeff will quietly, unassumingly slip into the auditorium in his leather jacket and jeans and find a seat among the paying customers. There, he is able to set an example instead of pacing, frowning and availing himself of every opportunity to play The Fun Police.

In fairness to Turnbull’s more conspicuous peers, it’s worth pointing out that every high school athletic director’s job is more demanding and thankless than ever. Probably this near-resignation should give us pause to ponder the extreme sacrifices that these two dozen guys and gals in our circulation area make. It is infinitely more complicated than rolling out a rack of balls and counting the change at the concession stand.

Athletic directors have the ultimate 9-to-5 job, if that means squeezing in all your food, exercise, sleep and family time between the hours of 9 p.m. and 5 a.m.

Every time you confront the athletic director or mutter to your neighbor in the bleachers about what that person could do better, it might help to consider that he or she usually is trying to juggle the same life you are. There are significant others, children and friends making sacrifices, also, while the AD labors nonstop for what averages out to a meager hourly wage in order to keep the ball in the air.

There are fields that need lining, umpires and referees who need checks and endless housekeeping duties that must be done yesterday without volunteer help. There are good people to be hired, new people to be counseled, injuries to be treated and hurt feelings to be soothed.

Job descriptions never get shorter. In smaller districts such as SAD 21, the athletic director is responsible for junior high sports, too, while serving as assistant principal or a classroom teacher.

My most recent encounter with Jeff was on an overcast Friday in June, when he was running to and fro like a child on a sugar high, trying to squeeze two playoff games and a graduation ceremony into the only dry, six-hour window of a rain-drenched week.

He still found two minutes to trudge over behind the backstop and thank me for a column I’d written the day before, just as he’d stopped a few weeks earlier to e-mail his objections to a different op-ed piece of mine. Both exchanges showed his class and his love of Maine high school sports.

Forget public education. The world in its entirety needs more people like Jeff Turnbull who wear their hearts on their sleeves, speak their mind without hesitation and steadfastly refuse to hold grudges.

Jeff is a good and decent man who chose his line of work for all the right reasons. In less than two weeks he will begin his 18th year in Dixfield and seventh as overseer of the area’s athletic programs.

Thank our guardian angel.

Kalle Oakes is a staff writer. His e-mail is [email protected]

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