Butte Central lost a special friend this week, Tom Petrich. He passed away to Maroon heaven after a long career serving the school he loved.
Tom was born into this world on August 4, 1941. He was a normal, healthy child. A couple of months later, World War II began and Tom’s father was off to help the Americans maintain freedom.
Back at home, a whooping cough epidemic hit Butte in 1942. Tom was one of those many children impacted by the illness. In Tom’s case, the illness became serious when it went to his brain. Due to the war effort, local health officials never had the proper medication on hand to treat the problem. The result was Tom had to endure with a mental illness that would challenge him the rest of his life.
Tom was sent to school in the first grade. School officials quickly returned him home telling his mother that they could not teach a child with his disabilities. Thus, Tom never did go to school. He stayed home and helped his mother.
Tom’s disabilities did not help as he grew and tried to carry on as a normal child. Kids in his neighborhood made fun of him because of Tom’s issue. Petrich fought back and more than once went home to mom’s house with blood on his body. Police officials got tired of all the fights Tom was getting into on the street.
That is when the Irish Christian Brothers stepped in to lend a helping hand. Brother Gerald Murray went to Tom’s mother and told her that might have a job at Butte Central for Tom.
The school was only a couple of blocks away. Tom went to the school and the Christian Brothers, athletic coaches players and students embraced Tom as one of their own. They put him to work right away. He was made part of the team by coaches like Huz Jensen and Otto Simon.
Tom became the assistant band director, sports information director, practice coordinator, water boy and anything else the school wanted him to do. There was never an assignment too big or too small for Tom. The young man who was changed by an illness now had had been led by the Lord for his true calling in life, helping Butte Central. It was an assignment that would last more than four decades.
If you saw the Butte Central band in the Fourth of July parade, there was Tom striding right next to them making sure everyone was in tune. If you went to a football practice at the Emmett Street field or near the City Corral, there was Tom making sure everything was in order. If you went to a basketball practice at the Civic Center, there was Tom directly all the needs required to insure everything run smoothly.
Tom always walked to practice. It required a walk of a couple of miles each way sometimes in nasty weather conditions. It did not bother Tom one bit. He was where he belonged with the Central Maroons.
When you talked about Maroon athletics, Tom had a brilliant memory recalling former players and scores. He could recall former athletes who competed twenty and thirty years earlier for Butte Central.
I had the good fortune of taking Tom on a number of trips as I went to broadcast Maroon games. He was a delight to have around.
The most cherished trip was in 1985. I was attending 4:30 mass on a Saturday at St. Patrick’s. There was Tom in church startled me because Butte Central was playing in the state championship game that night against Livingston in Bozeman. I asked Tom after mass why he was not in Bozeman. His reply was that he could not get a ride. I offered to take him with me as part of the KXLF-TV news crew. He had to ask his mother for permission to go and she quickly said it was okay.
There was Tom, now with a new role, as part of the KXLF-TV news team, covering the Maroons. The entire trip down to Bozeman One the trip to the MSU Fieldhouse, Tom talked about this player and that player and how special they were at Butte Central. Once at the game, Tom got a special press pass inside.
The Maroons got beat in that title game 99-97 in double overtime. It was the highest scoring championship game in the history of Montana high school basketball. The trip home that night with Tom was a quiet one. He never said three words. Petrich was devastated and cried the whole way home. He was that devoted to his beloved Maroons.
In turn, the Butte Central family, from the school administrators, teachers, coaches, players, cheerleaders, band and drill team members, parents to the fans were devoted and cherished Tom as part of their family.
He was Central’s number one fan. A man who found his calling not through the illness he suffered but through the warm hearts he touched. His devotion, his dedication, his spirit, his humor, his love of Butte Central will be missed. He was in one simple phrase, Mr. Central.