Tucson Perfection

Lucky for Tucson, Dale Lopez has made working with youth a priority most of his life

Most people can't remember when it was that they first met Dale Lopez. It's like they've always known him. Maybe they heard him announcing a ballgame with his smooth, pimp-daddy FM-radio DJ voice. Maybe they saw him reffing a game wearing his trademark glasses with the lenses that are thicker than a Tom Clancy novel. Maybe they or their kids (or even their grandkids) have participated in a sporting event that Dale put together and ran. Some old-timers might even remember him from back in the days when local radio was important and Dale was the sports guy at KTUC.

Dale Lopez is the quintessential Tucsonan—hard-working, easygoing, moderately Hispanic. He has a casual professionalism about him that others find appealing and an underlying passion for sports that make him a behind-the-scenes legend in this town. Quick to laugh and pretty much impossible to anger, he is the inverse of Will Rogers—he never met a man who didn't like him.

Despite having been, by his own admission, a mediocre cross-country runner at Tucson High, Lopez is a member of the Pima County Sports Hall of Fame. And just a few weeks back, the self-described "regular guy/school teacher" was inducted into the Tucson High Hall of Fame, where he joined an astronaut, a U.S. Senator, a couple billionaires, and a few coaching legends. (See Sidebar.)

It was not his involvement in all things sports—collegiate and professional—in Tucson that earned him the latest induction, but rather his involvement with young people over the past four decades. When he wasn't stinking at cross-country or serving as the sports editor of the Tucson High student newspaper, The Cactus Chronicle, he found time to volunteer at Roskruge Elementary, his alma mater. (Roskruge, with its 100-year-old main building, served as the original Tucson High before the current high school was built across the street.)

Lopez volunteered as the director of the fledgling after-school sports program and ended up coaching flag football, softball, cross country, track and field, and basketball. "I thought it would be a fun thing to do," he recalls, "and it kept me busy after school when it wasn't cross country season."

He is now in his 42nd year as director of the after-school program.

Gabe Gudino played for Dale back in the day and Gabe's son plays for Dale now. "It's really amazing," Gudino says. "He's the exact same guy (as when I played). He's patient and engaged. You can tell he really likes the kids and enjoys watching them get better. At the same time, I don't know how he does it after all these years."

How's this for staying power? In 1983, Lopez ran a basketball tournament at Roskruge. Three teams entered. This year, there were 42 teams competing for the title.

• • •

My Favorite Dale Lopez Story (Unsubstantiated) – The story is told of the time that Dale was reffing a high-school basketball game and emotions were running high. As is all too often the case, the fans in the stands were under the mistaken impression that the price of admission included the license to say whatever vile and stupid thing that came to mind. After Dale made a call, somebody in the stands screamed, "Are you blind?! Do you want to borrow my glasses?"

Dale took his own industrial–strength glasses off, showed them to the fan and said, "They can't possibly be more powerful than these."

• • •

Both of Dale's parents were born in the Tucson valley, which is something of a rarity. His father, Frank, was born in Vail in 1914 and his mom, Julia, was born in Tucson. Julia Lopez, who died a few years back at age 94, would have turned 100 this year. The Lopezes had five children. Dorothy is retired after a career at KTUC radio. Sylvia, who worked in media arts, is also retired. Frank works for the City of Tucson and Mike is with Pima College.

Frank Lopez (senior) served 20 years in the Air Force and was stationed in Amarillo Texas. After leaving the service, he moved the family back to Tucson and got a job as a custodian. (He also served for a time as the golf coach at Tucson High.) Julia Lopez worked at the cafeteria at Roskruge, which is now named in her honor.

Dale didn't go into education immediately. He got a job at KTUC radio, which had an all-news and sports format back then. His smooth baritone voice was perfect for radio and he had quite a following. He eventually worked his way up to operations manager. But he always had it in the back of his head that he would like to be a teacher to go along with his after-school activities. He finished his education at the UA and got a job as teacher. With a couple brief exceptions, he has been at Roskruge his entire career.

In 1987, Roskruge K-6th was expanded to include the Bilingual Magnet Middle School. Dale himself finds it a bit ironic that he is an institution at a bilingual school, when he is most decidedly not bilingual.

"It's a pretty common phenomenon," he explains. "Bilingualism generally goes away with the second generation. In most cases, it's almost certainly gone by the third generation. Our parents wanted us to be completely functional in English. I wish I were bilingual, but I'm not."

Dale's work at KTUC opened other doors for him. In the mid-1980s, legendary Amphi High football coach Vern Friedli asked him if he would announce the Panthers' home games. He's been doing them ever since. Over the years, he has also:

•Run the play clock and done the announcing at Pima Community College football games.

•Run the LED board (and has also served as official scorer) at UA basketball games.

•Done the announcing for Pima College men's and women's basketball, track and field, and baseball.

•Perhaps most notably, served as the voice of professional baseball in Tucson for decades (until there was no longer any professional baseball in Tucson). He was the announcer for the Tucson Toros of the Pacific Coast League, and then the Sidewinders, and finally for the Chihuhuas, who spent some time in Tucson while waiting for their stadium to be built in El Paso.

• • •

My Favorite Dale Lopez Story (For Sure True) – Coming up on 20 years now, I've shared the announcer's booth at Amphi games with Dale; I run the scoreboard. At least five times per season, we're in that sweatbox for three or four hours together. (When Amphi opened their season this year in August, the thermometer showed that it was 108 degrees in the booth.)

We get along great and Dale has the wickedest sense of humor, almost none of which goes out over the PA system. As the game progresses, he'll loosen up a bit. If a kid gets caught behind the line of scrimmage, Dale will announce, "That's John Jones with the carry for a gain of negative two."

Dale's a stickler for the rules, one of which calls for the clock to run, mostly non-stop, when there is a margin of 42 points or more in the fourth quarter. For whatever reason, most of the refs either don't know the rule or choose to ignore it. So, while the white hat down on the field is signaling for me to run the clock, Dale is saying, "That's not right."

One time this ref is giving himself a stroke, he's winding his arm so hard (like Denny's is actually going to close before the reffing crew can get there). Dale turns on the mic and, with the voice of God, says, "The clock is stopped according to AIA rules." That ref didn't say dookie after that.

• • •

I tried my hardest to find something negative about Dale, but came up short. There was this one time that he disqualified a kid at a track meet because the kid's uncle was running alongside the kid on the infield. (That's illegal.) That would have been about as juicy as it gets, if not for the fact that the kid's uncle and Dale are now great friends.

Because of the thickness of his glasses, he does invite unwarranted scorn when he referees basketball games or umpires softball games. (I'm not sure what his vision is, but the second number has to have three digits.) He has worn the glasses since the third grade, but a recent surgical procedure has now allowed him to go glasses-free for the first time in nearly 50 years.

I did come across an old newspaper article from back when newspapers actually covered high school sports. In the article about a game between girls' teams from Sahuaro and Sabino, it reads, "Sahuaro's comeback was aided when referee Dale Lopez called two technical fouls on Sabino Coach John Bart."

So that's it. Enough dirt to where a referee's name is mentioned in a sports article.

• • •

My Weirdest Dale Lopez Story – Tucked in the corner of Joaquin Murrieta Park, across the street from the Steve Daru Boys and Girls Club on Tucson's Westside, are a bunch of giant recycle bins. On a Saturday in July, I was heading downtown to attend 4:00 p.m. mass at Holy Family and I stopped off at the bins to recycle some newspapers and cardboard boxes. It was a brutally hot July afternoon and not a creature was stirring.

As I emptied the stuff out of my back seat, I noticed a kid walking along at a decidedly leisurely pace. In his hand was an old beat-up blue rubber basketball. He appeared to be heading toward Tully Elementary School, which sits just north of the El Rio Golf Course. The ball fields at Murrieta, the outdoor courts at Tully, and the entire course at El Rio were all totally deserted that time of day, as they always are that time of year.

For reasons too arcane to go into, I had, in my trunk, a couple basketballs that guys had left in the gym and never claimed. (I usually donate them to schools or to the B&G Club.) I looked at the ball in his hands and said, "Excuse me, young man. This is going to sound strange, but I have a couple basketballs in my trunk that I was going to donate. Would you like one of them?"

(When I thought about it later, it sounded like the creepiest perv line of all time.)

He was a big African kid and he spoke English with a bit of a lilt. He said yes and I opened the trunk and told him to take his pick. As he was making his decision, I asked him what high school he attended. He said, "Oh no, Sir. I am in middle school. I attend Roskruge."

I said, "Oh, so you know Dale Lopez?"

His face lit up immediately and the uncomfortable wall of politeness/creepy unease melted away. "Ah, Dale," he said with a smile. "I know Dale. He's wonderful."

We stood there in the heat for 10 solid minutes, talking about Dale. About how Dale helps him with his schoolwork, about how Dale gave him some much-needed school supplies, about how Dale coaches basketball. The kid finally selected a ball from the trunk, we shook hands, and he went off to Tully to shoot baskets in the blazing afternoon sun, lending credence to the old line by legendary Sahuaro coach Dick McConnell, who said, "When you're not practicing, somebody else is."

• • •

I've thought about it and I can't remember when I first met Dale. He's just always been there. When I was playing basketball at Cochise College, I played against his brother Mike, who was at Pima. (How's this for how times have changed? When we played each other at Pima, the game was televised live on Channel 11. Pretty sweet.)

Dale is 57 years old, but he figures he's got another 15 to 20 years left in him for his after-school program. He definitely wants to reach his 50th year as program director. When asked if he ever thought of going anywhere else, he smiled, "No. Tucson is perfect."

Final note: A few weeks back, some genius in Tucson Unified School District thought it would be a good idea to shift Dale out of Roskruge and over to another school. Before the day was over, word got out and the calls poured in. The order was quickly rescinded. Tucson is perfect for Dale, and Dale is perfect for Tucson.

Tucson High School Hall of Fame 2015

When Dale Lopez was inducted into the Tucson High School Hall of Fame on Oct. 17, it's fair to say he joined some rather elite company. The Hall has been in existence and has been inducting members (generally four or five a year) since 1982. The first name on the list is Frank Borman, the NASA astronaut who piloted Apollo 8 on its historic flight around the Moon on Christmas Eve of 1968.

A quick scan of the inductees reads like a Who's Who of the Old Pueblo. There are legendary figures Gilbert Ronstadt, Esther Tang, and Roy Drachman; politicians Dennis DeConcini and Katie Dusenberry; coaches Pop McKale, Ollie Mayfield, and George Genung; and business leaders George Kalil, Bill Estes, Jr. and Karl Eller. There are several people who, not surprisingly, share last names with current schools around town. They include: Madge Utterback, Morgan Maxwell, Jr., Delbert Secrist and Bud Doolen.

There's even Robert Morrow, for whom the Tucson Unified School District headquarters are named. Morrow was the district superintendent who desegregated Tucson's schools well before the Brown v. the Board of Education ruling was handed down in 1954.

This year's class is an eclectic bunch.

Maryhill Gleason of the Class of 1934 told a touching story at the induction ceremony about growing up dirt poor out in the wilderness past Tucson High (which, back then, was also pretty much out in the wilderness). She would help teachers grade papers in exchange for a few cents, which she would save up to buy food or clothing. Late in her senior year, she asked a teacher if there were any papers to grade. The teacher said that there weren't, but then asked why. Gleason replied that she was trying to save up enough money to buy a dress for graduation. The next day, the teacher gave her enough money to go buy a dress.

Gleason would go on to live a bad-ass life, serving as a trailblazer for women. When World War II broke out, she was in charge of communications for the Bechtel shipyard near San Francisco. She was then sent to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory to work on the oil pipeline that was supplying oil to America's allies in Russia. Near the end of the war, she joined the American Red Cross and was sent to the Panama Canal Zone to set up an enlisted men's club to help stem the tide of suicides. (It's hard to imagine why a place with 100 degree temperatures, 100 percent humidity and mosquitoes that can carry off small children would have the highest rate of suicides in the world.)

After the war, she became the first woman sent to Navy shipyards to oversee the build-up procedures for the Poseidon, Polaris, and Trident missiles for submarines.

From the Class of 1939 comes Dick Aros, who during a long career in construction, helped build 10 Catholic churches, two Catholic high schools, nuns' quarters, rectories and a seminary.

The killer thing, however, is that during his baseball-playing days—when the Badgers won two state crowns—Aros had a career batting average of .533. That state record stood for 66 years! Today, at 93, Aros remains a big UA fan and was the oldest alum to attend a recent Tucson High Football Alumni Association event.

Thomas Kalinske of the Class on 1962 has been stunningly successful in his life. He has served as president and CEO of Mattel Toys, Universal Matchbox and Sega of America. While it's not as cool as the Badger Hall of Fame, Kalinske is also a member of the Toy Industry Hall of Fame, the other members of which include Jim Henson, Walt Disney and George Lucas.

Virginia Coulson Kelly (Class of 1964) started off as an English teacher at Sunnyside High School. She then took a long time off to raise her three kids before going back to school and earning a law degree in 1990.

She quickly rose through the ranks and is now a member of the Arizona Court of Appeals. She's the only woman to have served on both the Pima County Superior Court and the state Court of Appeals.

Peg Bowden, Class of '62, has a list of accomplishments as long as your arm. She attended the UA on a marching band scholarship (that's infinitely better than a cheerleading scholarship, which, sadly, does exist). She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in Nursing and worked as a nurse for 30 years in Oregon.

Upon her retirement, she returned to Southern Arizona and lives near the mexican border with her husband. She is involved in numerous humanitarian efforts involving people crossing the border and last year wrote the book, Land of Hard Edges: Serving the Front Lines of the Border. She also serves as a percussionist for the Green Valley Concert Band.

Peg Bowden is the sister of noted author and longtime friend of the Weekly, Charles "Chuck" Bowden, who passed away about a year ago. Chuck Bowden was part of the 2014 Hall of Fame Class.

And then there's Dale Lopez ...

—Tom Danehy