After a stint in the military, Larry LaBree started fighting fires for the Bellingham Fire Department in March of 1971.
But shortly after he was hired, LaBree was told that his job as a firefighter came with a second position.
It turns out his assistant chief was a football official, and his chief, Jack Baker, was a well-known former athlete from Bellingham High, and LaBree said he was “expected to have a referee uniform in the fall.”
Forty-five years later, LaBree is retiring from a distinguished career of wearing the stripes for the Whatcom Skagit Island Football Officials Association at the conclusion of this season.
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LaBree spent four decades as an official until he worked his last varsity game in 2007.
“Needless to say, once I got out on the field, I found that it was really, really enjoyable,” LaBree said. “I always loved the challenge, and that has sustained me all these years.”
In 1989, LaBree assumed the role of assigning secretary for the three counties with the responsibility of working with the high schools and middle schools in Whatcom, Skagit and Island counties, selecting officials to work the games and evaluating the association’s officials to help them improve.
LaBree, 73, also officiated small college games in the Pacific Northwest from 1975-2000, and was an observer for the Great Northwest Athletic Conference until the end of last season.
LaBree graduated from Bellingham High School in 1962 – the same year the Vietnam War escalated and the number of troops overseas tripled from the previous year. LaBree received his draft notice and eventually joined the Army Security Agency, which was then a branch of the National Security Agency, in 1966. He was whisked to a town 30 miles south of Munich, Germany, where he spent the next four years.
When he got out of the military, LaBree returned to Bellingham. He was looking for work and saw that a fire station was opening on Northwest Avenue. After discussing with his firefighter brother-in-law, LaBree interviewed for the job and was hired.
Shortly after, he was contacted about a job with the NSA in Washington, D.C. LaBree was faced with a tough decision, but ultimately chose to stay in Bellingham.
“Who knows what would’ve happened, but I was very fortunate to end up with a wonderful career,” siad LaBree, who served 34 years and retired as the battalion chief.
Of course, who knows how long he would have been “allowed” to stay if he hadn’t accepted his second profession?
But wearing the stripes hasn’t always been easy for LaBree.
During his first game as an official, LaBree had to call a delay-of-game penalty on a middle school team but said he quickly realized he didn’t know what the signal was for delay of game.
“I ended up pointing at my watch,” LaBree said. “So, the first signal I ever made as a football official was one I made up.”
LaBree obviously improved from there, as he went on to work the WIAA state semifinals and finals 11 times between 1979 and 1997. In 1996, LaBree was selected by the National Federation of Interscholastic Officials Association as the Washington State Official of the Year.
“My style developed over the years,” LaBree said. “You never become a good official until you learn what is important to call and what isn’t. We’re out there to create a level playing field.”
Taking LaBree’s position as assigning secretary beginning next year is Pete Lockhart, who started officiating in 2002 and has been mentored by LaBree, along with countless other officials in the state.
“I have all the respect in the world for him to be able to do what he’s done for so long,” Lockhart said. “It’s a thankless job, and I’ve got big shoes to fill, but I think I can do it to the best of my abilities because of Larry.”
LaBree credits his wife, Fran, and kids for allowing him to exercise his love of sports every weekend.
“She allowed me to play with the boys all these years, and not everybody would be so understanding and accommodating,” LaBree said. “Whatever I accomplished on the field was a direct relation to my family understanding how important sports are to me and allowing me to go that route.”
Whatcom County playoff games this weekend
CLASS 3A STATE PLAYOFFS
▪ Bonney Lake At Squalicum (at Civic Stadium), 7 p.m. Friday
▪ Ferndale at O’Dea (at Memorial Stadium, Seattle), 7 p.m. Friday
CLASS 2A STATE PLAYOFFS
▪ Black Hills at Lynden (at Civic Stadium), 1 p.m. Saturday
CLASS 1A STATE PLAYOFFS
▪ Hoquiam at Mount Baker (at Civic Stadium), 6 p.m. Saturday
▪ Meridian at Cascade Christian (at Sumner), 7 p.m. Saturday
CLASS 1B QUAD-DISTRICT PLAYOFFS
▪ Quilcene at Lummi, 5 p.m.