The Deaf Basketball Referee.. A Tribute to Russell Herring

March Madness...the perfect time to pay tribute to my daddy.  This story is not for men only-ladies there is a love story in this!

Born October 3, 1915 in Rocky Mount, NC, at age 2 he became deaf due to illness.  His only means of communication were pointing or using made up hand gestures his family created.  At age 7 he was sent to the N. C. School for the Deaf in Morganton (NCSD); he thought he would never see his family again!  At NCSD he found HIS world and HIS passions...sign language, sports, the newspaper and years later my Mom!  He learned a trade at the school, so he became a Linotype Operator for the newspaper, and once he graduated, returned to Rocky Mount and worked for the local newspaper.   He had a keen eye, and knowledge of sports, thus was given the opportunity to referee games which he began in 1936.  He moved up the referee ladder quite quickly officiating 75 games including 2 tournaments in one year!  Although he could not HEAR, he could READ LIPS...Players were THROWN OUT of games!  Hearing or speaking was not necessary to referee, daddy used the referee hand gestures for calling the game.  When he would make a call for "hipping", he made it look like a Hula Dance...the crowd would go wild!  There were countless articles written about him-he was added to Ripley's Believe it or Not as the only known Deaf Referee and he was noted at the Most Popular Referee in North Carolina!

Daddy was 5 years older than Mom so he knew very little of her while he was in school.  He would go back to NCSD and referee, on this occasion he was refereeing a girls basketball game, my Mom (Margaret) happened to be a player-she scored 21 points and he wanted to meet her!  Jennie Law, Daddy's former teacher and Mom's current teacher made arrangements for Daddy to meet her.  At their first meeting, Mom informed him that she had a boyfriend, but he was not giving up-he wrote her, sent flower and invited her to come see him referee in Rocky Mount.  Mom was stunned at how popular Daddy was-everyone wanted to see the Deaf Referee!  He finally won her heart and they were married January 29, 1945 and their love story began.   They were both Duke fans until Duke played against NC State, mom always pulled for State, why?   "To keep a little spice in the marriage," she would say.  In 1946 they moved to Durham, Daddy accepted a new job at the Hearld Newspaper, mom became pregnant, and Daddy gave up refereeing-he believed family came first.

Through the years Daddy was honored for many things: in the 1960's Chairman and 2nd Vice President of the N. C. Association for the Deaf, in 1975 Father of the Year, in 1990 he was inducted into the NCSD Hall of Fame, and The Crest Newspaper was dedicated to him countless times...Mr. Northern Knight (Northern High Schools #1 Fan from the 1960's until his death in 2001).

The best way to describe him..."an Angel dressed in human clothes"-ask anyone, they will agree.  His passion for sports did not compare to the LOVE he had for God, Mom and his four Children: Rusty (Russell, Jr.), Rosemary Jennie (names after the teacher who introduced them), Margaret Ann (named after Mom), and Me-Karen Kay (my sisters named me-go figure)!  Daddy couldn't pronounce "Karen" so I became "Kay".  Both of our parents had voices, not normal voices-illegible to most people, but understood by our family-which is why they always carried a pen and writing pad.   All four of us had various connections to sports, but Rusty had a passion like Daddy's, he became an ACC, NBA and SEC Referee.

I often cross paths with people who knew Daddy, they always have wonderful things to say about him and how he touched their life. At his funeral in 2001, there were over 400 people who signed the registry!  It is amazing how one little Deaf man (He was 5'7") could touch 100's of lives in such a positive way, yet he never spoke a word!

By Kay Herring Stephenson, a Daddy's Girl.


  1. Kay what a great tribute to your Dad. It brings back so many memories of growing up together.

  2. What a beautiful tribute to a wonderful man. I only knew your daddy as a refree, but remember what a highly respected man he was. He always had a smille or a nod of recognition to all those he saw. I was only a kid, but I remember him as being humble and kind. He was an honorable man. May his tribe increase.

  3. I just read this Kay and it is a fine tribute to your dad. He sounds like he was a great man!

  4. Remember him well....and of course all you kids.....They did a great job with the 4 of you!
    Great Article, Kay!