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Emotional marker

Bench at Falconer complex dedicated in memory of longtime official

OBSERVER Photo by Matt Spielman Family, friends and colleagues of John LaBardo sit on a bench dedicated in his memory Saturday at Falconer Central School’s athletic complex. LaBardo, the longtime president of the Southwestern New York Track & Field Officials Association, passed away one year earlier. The bench is near the school’s shot put pit.

FALCONER — For years, John LaBardo’s name could be found on the track and field record board at Falconer Central School.

As bigger, stronger student-athletes came along, LaBardo’s records fell.

But thanks to the Southwestern New York Track & Field Officials Association, LaBardo’s legacy will not be forgotten.

A few dozen of LaBardo’s closest family and friends gathered Saturday — the one-year anniversary of his unexpected passing at the age of 71 — to dedicate a bench near the shot put pit at the high school’s athletic complex.

“There are a lot of these benches around Falconer in memory of a lot of people who have done stuff in Falconer athletics. If people haven’t come down to see anything, come down to see this facility. It is a class facility,” said Tom Franco, retired official with the SWNYT&FOA and a past member of its Board of Directors. “Thank you to the leadership of the Falconer program and (head coach) Dave Nelson. He’s a character guy. When you look the word character up it says ‘to scratch and engrave on your heart.’ John was that type of athlete.”

OBSERVER Photo by Matt Spielman

LaBardo graduated from Falconer High School in 1968 and Fredonia State University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology, in 1972. He threw the shot put for both schools.

LaBardo then received a master’s degree in business administration from St. Bonaventure University in 1983. Through his business, Southern Tier Financial in Falconer, he guided and advised individuals and small employers on insurance and financial goals. He also owned and managed several multi-use housing units to ensure affordable housing was available in the community.

“John and I had been friends for a long time. Just the man he was … knowing somebody for 60-some years and his involvement with the community … the help he did in the community outweighed any officiating because that was done by his faith,” Franco said. ” … He would help people all over. He didn’t adopt people, but he ‘sponsored’ people. That’s a good word to use because that’s a thing from the Bible.”

LaBardo threw the shot put in the Empire State Senior Games until the age of 55.

“We knew that John was going to be an official because we knew that he did everything with focus. We didn’t think about his leadership at the time, but when he was an official, he was the head of the field events at a state meet. We knew what he could do,” said Tom Priester, the officials association’s vice president as well as past secretary and treasurer. “He cared that our association was the best that we could be.”

OBSERVER Photo by Matt Spielman

LaBardo became a local high school track and field official in 1997, serving as the group’s president until his passing.

“John, in the last number of years, was such a tremendous leader. You always worry after you lose such a good leader like Joe Paterniti, but John exemplified everything that a good track official should be,” an emotional Priester said. “He treated everybody with respect. We need to do that here. This is our way to show him that we care.”

Several in attendance Saturday commented that they watched local high school student-athletes use the bench throughout this spring season before its dedication. That will continue for years to come as the best student-athletes from Chautauqua and Cattaraugus counties, in addition to all of Section VI, utilize the facility for meets.

“When Tom (Franco) approached me, we thought ‘What should we do?’ When Dave Nelson mentioned the bench, we thought ‘what a great idea because this is going to be here for years,'” Priester said. “People are going to come by and see what kind of a guy he was. We miss him, but you put faith in the next guy, and that’s Trevor Hitchcock. We will move on because we have a good group of officials.”

“As a track official, he was precise and he did everything right. Everything was perfect. In lieu of buying a trophy or sending flowers or cookies, this was something that he would want,” Franco said of the bench. “I’m going to enjoy it because I like watching the field events. Shot put was his event. It’s here at Falconer so every time somebody comes down, they’re going to see a bit of John.”

Following words of thanks from LaBardo’s widow, Jodi, a song was played that wrapped up what he meant to everybody in attendance.

The closing lyrics were:

“Well done, well done; My beloved child

You have run the race and now you’re home

Welcome to the place where you belong. Well done.”

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