I didn't know Joe Bierly, but I certainly knew of him.

Anyone who closely followed York County sports over the past six decades knew who Joe Bierly was.

He was that kind of man.

My first memory of Bierly came when I was a boy watching high school basketball games. Normally a 10-year-old doesn't notice an official, except to yell out an occasional "are you blind?"

Even a 10-year-old, however, couldn't help but notice Bierly. He officiated with flair - lots and lots of flair. The flamboyant Bierly enjoyed a natural back-and-forth banter with the players, coaches and fans. He seemed to actually have fun during the games -- something that's not always easy to do when you're constantly being berated from all sides.

Bierly
Bierly (Bierly)

At the same time, however, there was never any doubt that Bierly was the man in charge on the court. That's a difficult line to walk, but Bierly seemed to do it effortlessly.

But officiating basketball -- at both the high school and college levels -- was just a small part of Bierly's legacy. He was also a standout athlete, fine coach and beloved teacher.

Bierly died of cancer on Nov. 28 in Ruskin, Fla., at age 79.

Bierly was a Glen Rock native and a graduate of Susquehannock High School and Gettysburg College. He was a four-letter athlete with the Warriors and later signed with the Baltimore Orioles. He spent one season in the minors before being drafted into the U.S. Army.

When he got out of the military, he earned his masters degree at Western Maryland and would teach physical education and health at South Western High School for 33 years, from 1959 until 1992. He served as the athletic director with the Mustangs, as well as a baseball and basketball coach. He became a revered figure at the Hanover-area school, where students often referred to him as "Sir."

While at South Western, he made a big impression on Don Seidenstricker, the school's current AD and the Mustangs' longtime football coach. Seidenstricker knew Bierly for more than three decades.

"Joe truly was the type of man who lived life to the fullest," Seidenstricker said. "He was very engaging and people naturally gravitated to him. He had an energy about him that was contagious. He was absolutely one of the most respected teachers, by his students, at South Western."

In his later years, Bierly also became one of the area's better amateur golfers, winning club championships at both South Hills and Honey Run.

All of his athletic achievements eventually earned him a spot in the South Central Chapter of the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame.

Seidenstricker called Bierly "a natural." He also said that Bierly was the kind of man who won't soon be forgotten by the people who knew him best.

"One thing I do recall (when Bierly moved to Florida after his retirement), he always ended our (phone) conversations with 'tell anyone at South Western that still remembers me, or cares, that Joe says Hi.'" There always were and they always did."

A celebration of Bierly's life will be held from 6 p.m. until 8 p.m. Thursday at Panebaker Funeral Home, 311 Broadway, Hanover, followed by a brief service at 8 p.m.

Steve Heiser is sports editor of The York Dispatch. He can be reached at sheiser@yorkdispatch.com.