Gymnasiums around Western New York are going to be a little emptier the rest of the basketball season.
Arnie Hierl, who spent more than 35 winters driving to venues with the goal of seeing each of Western New York's 100-plus high school boys teams play, died of natural causes last week in his Cheektowaga apartment. He was 65.
Late sportswriter Bob Powell of the Courier-Express wrote in a February 1979 article: "If Arnie didn't see 'em, probably they didn't play."
Salamanca coach Pete Weishan said he first met Hierl when he started coaching 32 years ago. He said he feared something had happened when he didn't see Hierl at the IABBO Tournament on Dec. 28 and 30.
"He was probably the biggest basketball fan I've ever been around," said Weishan. "He kept stats and had a note card on every team he saw. What a wonderful man he was. There were a few of us coaches who got to know him pretty good. I always looked forward to talking to him six or seven times a year. What a great person and what a basketball nut."
Longtime friend Bill Schroeder of Fredonia sat with Hierl at the Dunkirk-Gowanda game Dec. 14. Hierl attended every New York State Championship Tournament in Glens Falls since 1978, and about five years ago, he convinced Schroeder to join him.
"I'll never forget his laugh and the stories he used to tell. We'd run into each other 10-15 times a year," said Schroeder. "He didn't care who was playing, he could care less. It was about watching a basketball game. He just had a love and a passion for the game. I don't know how many games he would go to. Maybe 150."
Hierl taught social studies at Lancaster High School from 1964 until he retired in 1995. He was a voracious reader and had a photographic memory.
Hierl loved watching all high school sports, but basketball was his first love.
"When we were very young, neither one of us had any family in town, so we started going to games together, and that became our night out," said Dick Pierce, who taught with Hierl from 1964 to '95. "He was very demanding [as a teacher]. I think at the end of the year the students realized how far he had brought them. A lot of students went into education because of him."
Hierl was born in Willimantic, Conn., but was raised in the Southern Tier. He was a 1959 graduate of Pine Valley High School in South Dayton. He graduated from the University at Buffalo in 1963 and received his master's degree in 1968, also from UB.
Growing up in a rural community, Hierl never thought twice about driving a couple of hours to see a game.
"Distances are relative," he once said. "Heck, kids in Lancaster think Hamburg is at the end of the earth."
Hierl was a lifelong bachelor. He is survived by his parents: Victor and Roberta, both of West Suffield, Conn., and two brothers, Thomas of Tuscon, Ariz., and David of Whitefish, Mont. A memorial service is being planned for this week.