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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

McDonald hangs up the whistle

Decision comes after 35 years officiating and five years as the region’s county commissioner

Catie Clark
Posted 4/17/24

ELY— When Paul McDonald walked off the basketball court for the last time at the Section 7A semifinal last month, he capped a 35-year career of officiating high school sports in Minnesota. …

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McDonald hangs up the whistle

Decision comes after 35 years officiating and five years as the region’s county commissioner


ELY— When Paul McDonald walked off the basketball court for the last time at the Section 7A semifinal last month, he capped a 35-year career of officiating high school sports in Minnesota.
McDonald says his decades of playing, coaching and officiating were motivated by his love of sports. “My whole thing was to give back to the games that were good to me. Athletics and education have been my life and it feels good to give back.”
McDonald’s devotion to sports was key to his decision to continue officiating even after his election to the St. Louis County Board of Commissioners in 2018.
McDonald inherited his love for sports and, in particular, his knowledge of basketball from his famous father, Bob McDonald, who coached the Chisholm Bluestreaks for 59 years, racking up over 1,000 wins in his career. “My dad was the winningest coach in the state,” recalls Paul. Growing up in Chisholm, Paul played high school sports and excelled at basketball, which earned him an athletic scholarship to the University of Nebraska in the 1970s. He transferred to South Dakota State, spending one year redshirted before playing for the Division I Jackrabbits.
McDonald started teaching physical education in Cotton and then at Tower-Soudan. He later moved to Ely to teach and coach at Vermilion Community College, the predecessor of Minnesota North College-Vermilion. He retired from Vermilion in 2018.
Early officiating
Years before he started officiating for high school sports, McDonald worked as a basketball referee for a men’s basketball league in Chisholm.
“I actually started officiating when I was in high school,” McDonald said. “I did that for three years… I got exposed as an official there and it was a very good experience.”
When he went on to college, he officiated at intermural basketball and football games. After he graduated, once he started coaching at the high school level, he officiated at lower-level games.
Then he took a position in 1989 at Vermilion teaching physical education and acting as the head coach for basketball, and the assistant coach for football.
“When I took the job at Vermilion, I had the flexibility to do some officiating.”
When his friend Jack Coombe asked him if he’d like to officiate high school basketball, he took the opportunity. Then John Soumi, athletic director at Babbitt-Embarrass High School, and Rudy Semeja, recently retired from Vermilion, assembled a football officiating crew that included McDonald in 1990. That was McDonald’s start as a high school referee and he went on to officiate for the next 35 years.
A distinguished record
“I’ve had a lot of fun,” McDonald remarked. “The camaraderie with officials is something that I’ll miss, as well as the interaction with the people at the games.”
The feeling will be mutual, particularly among many of his fellow officials. “I feel so fortunate to have been able to work so many games with Paul over the years,” said Frank Ivancich. “He taught me how to become a good official. I’ve always prided myself in having the ability to make the players feel it is about them and their experience, and I learned that from Paul, from watching how he related to the players and coaches he officiated for.”  
Sometimes the atmosphere could be intense, Ivancich recalls. “I remember working games in Tower gym with Mac, which at times could get quite intense as the fans are literally on top of you, but he always assured me that I was doing a good job.”   
For Ivancich, knowing and working closely with McDonald opened up the world of basketball and all of its opportunities. “I was able to meet so many great basketball people as well working with Paul, which should be no surprise as many have often said to me about Mac, who doesn’t he know?” 
McDonald’s notoriety in the region, combined with his affable nature and interest in serving others, made his transition to a political career seem effortless.
McDonald is ending his time as a referee on an upbeat note. “We were fortunate enough this year to be able to do the state championship nineman football game,” McDonald said, noting that the others on his crew included Kyle Lamppa, Davis Lamppa, Aaron Donais, and Mike Pope. “It was a nice feather in the hat,” he said.
In total, McDonald has officiated in seven state football tournaments and at two state championship games— the other back in 2016, in a class 2A title match.
His basketball record is even more impressive. McDonald has officiated at 22 state tournaments and at four state championship games, in 2006, 2016, 2017, and 2020. “All of those were in the large school sections, either 3A or 4A,” he said.

Stepping down
After 35 years, McDonald decided it was time to move on. “The weather comes into play,” he explained. “This year, I was 90 percent sure I was going to get out of football. We were doing a section semifinal at Mesabi East and the sleet was coming down. The wind was coming out of the northwest at about 30 miles an hour. And I came in at halftime and I told my crew I said, ‘You know when I said I was 90 percent sure? I am now 100 percent sure. This is it!
Even so, McDonald said he’s not letting go entirely.
“I’ve worked very closely with the Minnesota State High School League. I am a coordinator of officials for northeastern Minnesota, and I will keep doing that.
“I’m going to move into an observing role where I will be watching and helping officials with their craft. And I’ll be able to mentor younger officials, to be somebody they can reach out to, talk to, and ask questions. I’ve done that for the last seven or eight years, but now I’ll be able to focus on that without (the added duty of) being on the field or on the court.”
For his 32nd wedding anniversary, he will take his wife Tracy on a Caribbean cruise with his last officiating pay. “I would never have been able to do this without her support and understanding,” he said.
While stepping down as an official is a big life change for McDonald, he said he has no regrets. “I’m at a point, after 35 years, where it’s time to pass the torch. When I walk onto the field, or walk onto the basketball floor, I think people are happy to see me. And I think that’s a good way to end.”