MARSHALL - Friendships can be formed anywhere, as the Marshall Tiger swimming and diving team members came to realize a few years back when they first met William "Bill" Schimmel.
As a man in his 80s, Schimmel isn't necessarily the likeliest of candidates for befriending teenagers and their families. But as a Minnesota State High School League swim official for more than four decades, Schimmel has been involved in the high school careers of countless young athletes in the area. For many of the athletes on the Marshall High School swimming and diving team, Schimmel has become a welcomed part of their life.
"I've been coaching here for 11 years and he's been our official for pretty much every home meet that I can remember," Marshall head coach Nicole Peterson said. "He's really a great guy. The girls enjoy having him on the pool deck."
At the Marshall Tigers' final home meet of the season against St. Peter recently at Southwest Minnesota State University, Schimmel was honored for all the years of his dedicated service.
"Officiating swimming has been very fulfilling," Schimmel said. "I've been very fortunate health-wise and job-wise and also with the people I've dealt with."
The celebration also served as Schimmel's retirement party, as he officiated the final meet of his career that night.
"It's a tear-jerker to see him go," MHS swim parent Mary Surprenant said. "We'll have to find somebody else to replace him, but that will be very difficult. His presence went beyond dedication."
In Schimmel's honor, a special cake was made. In addition to a congratulatory message thanking him for the many years of service and friendship, a photo of the 2012 Tiger swimming and diving team was also included.
"Bill is such a warm, dedicated and fun guy and was truly humbled by the special treatment the team gave him," Surprenant said. "We need more people like Bill."
Along with the cake, the MHS team also made and wore "We love you, Bill" T-shirts and gave Schimmel balloons, in orange and black Tiger colors.
"Bill, who lives in Mankato, also officiates St. Peter's meets as well, so it was kind of neat that his last meet was between the St. Peter girls and Marshall girls," Peterson said. "We always have pizza with the St. Peter team afterwards, and this year, we invited Bill as well. We tried to make it a special night for him."
The gesture worked, as Schimmel said he was nearly speechless, especially when the girls gave him his own T-shirt.
"I was really overwhelmed," he said. "I almost wanted to cry."
Schimmel is the first to admit he's had a good life, most of which he's spent serving others. After finishing his graduate work at the University of Minnesota, where he was also a standout track performer, Schimmel got both his diploma and his draft notice. Having gotten a bachelor of arts degree and served in the U.S. Army from 1952-54, Schimmel went to Winona State University to get the necessary bachelor of science degree in order to teach.
"By golly, they hired me at Winona High School right away," he said. "I walked out the door at WSU and walked in the door at WHS. I was really fortunate. I also met my future wife Naomi, a New Ulm girl, there, too."
After teaching American history in Winona, Schimmel did the same in Waseca for the next three years. Then, for more than 25 years, he taught senior government, economics and social problems at Mankato High School, before the school split into Mankato East and Mankato West. He estimates that he's taught approximately 4,000 students during his tenure.
Schimmel was also elected as the county commissioner and was re-elected to serve on the Nicollet County Board four times.
"I've had a good educational career," Schimmel said.
It was while he was at Mankato High School that Schimmel got into officiating swimming.
"I had been a baseball umpire, and I coached cross country in the fall," he said. "One day during the swimming season, the athletic director came up to me and said we had a swim official cancel for the meet that day. He asked me if I could possibly fill in."
After being given a swimming rule book, Schimmel spent the next four hours preparing for the meet, which ironically, was against Marshall. That was in 1971. After requests came in from a few other athletic directors, including Marshall's, Schimmel's officiating career was off and running.
"That's how I started doing meets in Marshall," Schimmel said. "I've done meets at Marshall for about 25 years. And I also officiated swim meets for Mankato East, for all the Big 9 schools and for St. Peter. It's been very gratifying."
As a swim official at a dual meet, Peterson said that Schimmel was basically in charge of everything.
"He's our starter and our stroke and turn judge," she said. "There's a lot of responsibility at a dual meet, and he's the only one there. But he's always been very good about helping the girls along or telling the coaches things that the girls can do to improve upon."
As a male official in a girls sport, Schimmel said, he always has to watch it a little bit.
"You can't get too friendly," he said. "It's kind of a tricky situation since one of the rules in swimming is not wearing jewelry. Obviously, as an official, you have to kind of scan the girls for possible jewelry."
But Schimmel learned to adapt to sensitive issues by involving a little humor while still maintaining his duties as a professional.
"At the beginning of every meet, I started asking coaches to raise their right hand and solemnly swear that their girls are not wearing jewelry," he said. "They got to where they appreciated me and my position."
Schimmel also used tact when dealing with junior high swimmers or those just beginning the sport.
"Sometimes a young girl would kind of goof up and not take the starting platform or something, so I'd make a little remark," he said. "I could have disqualified them but I always felt that these kids are learning and you have to make a learning situation good instead of being mean."
That didn't mean that Schimmel didn't enforce the rules, however, especially with varsity level swimmers. But rather than see a young swimmer be disqualified and disappoint her fans, Schimmel chose certain catch phrases to make his point.
"I'd say, 'swimmer, don't let that happen again or you'll have to stay after school,'" he said. "The coaches appreciated the rule application and that it wasn't applied by a dictator. The girls came to appreciate that but obeyed the rules, so I achieved success that way."
Schimmel was very much respected at St. Peter as well. At the swim team's final home meet of the season a few weeks back, the crowd gave him a standing ovation.
As a final token of their long-time friendship and appreciation for his many years of dedicated service to the sport of swimming and diving, the Marshall High School team members gave Schimmel the 500-yard freestyle bell.
"That's the bell that Bill would ring when the swimmers were on the last lap of the 500," Peterson said. "A few years back, someone took it home and painted it in Marshall Tiger colors. We gave that to him that night to take home with him."
While Schimmel's officiating days have come to an end, the swim season for four MHS athletes has not. After making the cut at the section meet, where 13 Tiger swimmers competed, seniors McKenzie Vermeire and Abby Surprenant and sophomores Kylie Vermeire and Ashley Dunn will compete together in the 200- and 400-yard freestyle relays at the 2012 Minnesota State Girls Swimming and Diving Meet at the University of Minnesota Aquatic Center in Minneapolis Friday. Alternates Laura Mitlyng and Cassaundra Krogen will also make the trip and provide support for the team.
McKenzie Vermeire also earned the right to swim in the 200 individual medley and the 100 backstroke at the state meet, while her sister Kylie Vermeire will compete in the 200- and 500-yard freestyle swims. Dunn will also participate as an individual after qualifying in the 100 backstroke.
"I think the girls are ready," Peterson said. "I'm excited for them."
While next year's season is a long way off, Peterson anticipates that Schimmel's absence will certainly be noticeable.
"He will be missed," she said. "It won't be the same without him."