Photo by Caleb Motsinger
Ed Hightower, 62, retired as a college basketball official this season. Hightower has served as the Edwardsville School District's superintendent since 1995 and previously worked 21 years as an Alton administrator.
EDWARDSVILLE – Ed Hightower has seen it all and done it all. He has climbed to the mountaintop of college basketball officiating and supervised a thriving school district.
But what you should know the most about the 62-year-old Hightower is that his local roots run deep. He’s still that Southwestern Illinois guy who came to Alton 48 years ago from Gobler, Mo.
From Gobler to Alton to Edwardsville – Hightower has never really left home.
“I’ll never forget where I started and I’ll always call Alton my home,” said Hightower, the Edwardsville superintendent of schools since 1995. He previously worked 21 years as an Alton administrator.
He added, "I've had so many friends who have been supportive over the years. Without all of that support, I wouldn't have made it."
Hightower, who retired as an official this season, intends to hang up his superintendent’s badge in 2016. So he served as a basketball official for 36 years and has worked in schools for 39 years.
He has touched many lives in both avenues, though high-level officiating, including a dozen Final Four appearances, and five NCAA championship games elevated his national profile.
“I’ve really been fortunate and had so many people help me along the way,” he said, pointing to Ralph Leinicke, Gene Saville, Cliff Tinsley, Dick Condrey and Jim Bain, among others.
The 1970 AHS grad can vividly recall how it all began courtside. Hightower, the player, decided to become a referee, one of the first African-American ones in the area.
“I first started working intramural games at the old ‘bubble gym’ on the SIUE campus,” said Hightower, a Southern Illinois University Edwardsville graduate.
He pocketed $1.25 per game, but Hightower obviously wasn’t doing it for money. He loved being involved in his favorite game.
There were also the rough-and-tumble Alton city league games, where hardscrabble players tested his tenacity. Hightower survived the test and learned plenty about patience and poise.
“I’d get paid $5 a game and do four games a night. And if the players weren’t happy with the way you called the games, they wanted to beat you up,” he said, laughing. “You had to work hard at it.”
Nobody ever threw a beer bottle or whisky glass at him, so Hightower proved a quick study with on-the-job training. He seemed destined for bigger things.
“Ralph Leinicke was really the one that got me going for working high school games,” Hightower said. “He taught me about honesty and integrity and not getting caught up in what people say.”
Leinicke also told me never to look over his shoulder. Just try to make the right call.
“There were times years ago when I was the only African-American in a gym and one of the few overall that was officiating games,” Hightower said. “Ralph Leinicke told me that once the ball goes in the air to start the game, it didn’t matter what color you are.”
An official is an official. Period.
The next step was college ball.
“Arnold Copeland, the athletics director at Lewis and Clark Community College, hired me at age 24 to work my first college game,” Hightower said. “Then I worked in the Midwest Community College Athletic Conference.”
Big-timers started calling him. He worked in the Missouri Valley Conference for years and eventually found his whistle-blowing home in the Big Ten. Thus, the guy who once officiated games for Vergil Fletcher, Pick Dehner and Sherrill Hanks graduated to the likes of Bobby Knight, Lou Henson and Tom Izzo.
Hightower had arrived. He was regarded as one of the best in the business and received the 1992 Nasmith Award as the College Official of the Year. More honors followed, including one that encompasses both of his careers – the Elijah P. Lovejoy Human Rights Award in 1990.
Wife, Barbara, and daughters Julie and Jennifer have supported him along the way. Ed and Barbara have been married for 39 years. They will vouch for his dedication to basketball and helping to educate students.
“As much as I enjoy basketball, my work as superintendent of the Edwardsville School District is my top priority,” Hightower said. He was National Educator of the Year in 1995, another proud moment.
He has two more years of that. Hightower’s final Big Ten game this season was in Iowa City and his last game was Dec. 28 at Evansville. He reunited one more time with Marty Simmons, a coach for five years at SIUE.
“It was very gratifying to me because I’ve known Marty for a long time,” Hightower said.
All figured, Hightower worked close to 2,500 collegiate games, though he never called the Illinois-Missouri Braggin’ Rights game in St. Louis. That was by design.
“When it first started, people called me and said I would be a natural to do it,” Hightower said. He said thanks, but no thanks. Hightower didn’t want to get in the middle of the Border War feud, a battle he could only lose.
“I don’t even go to the game,” he admitted.
With his high-powered portfolio, Hightower has called his own shots, calling them as he saw them.