Rich Kellenberger was a private man and he often had difficulty verbalizing his feelings to the ones he loved the most.
But they knew.
That was true all the way up until the day the veteran official and community volunteer died Aug. 25, surrounded by his closest family members in his Bakersfield home. He was 76.
Whether it was a simple smile, a look in his eyes, his volunteer efforts or a gesture of true kindness, it made no difference. They knew. Actions spoke louder than words to Kellenberger, and they knew how he felt. Everyone knew.
So when Todd Kellenberger found himself alone in a room with his father, who was sedated and unconscious last week, no words needed to be spoken. He knew.
Life-long Yankees’ fans, the two, along with Todd’s eight-month-old son Miles, enjoyed a shared passion — watching sports together — one last time, celebrating a Yankees’ victory over the Dodgers.
“It was one of the first times in a long time, through all of this, that Dad and I were alone,” said Todd of his dad, who was diagnosed with alzheimer’s and dementia several years ago. “Where it was time for he and I to just talk … mostly me talking. Visually he looked unconscious, but I was told by all the doctors that he could still hear and was aware of what’s going on around him.
“We just kind of relaxed and hung out. We wound up watching the Yankees-Dodger game. Being able to yell and cheer at the TV, which is something he loved to do, I think gave him that peace to transition. Even with him being in the state he was, it was magical for me to be able to have that time, and to be able to watch one more game with Dad.”
Rich saw more than his fair share of games as an official in a career that spanned more than 50 years. From college to high school to youth football and baseball, he was a familiar fixture at sporting events throughout Kern County, and beyond.
He also served on the board of directors for the Bob Elias Kern County Sports Hall of Fame, the Jockey Club and Bakersfield Southwest Baseball, where he also managed the concession stand with his daughter, Trisha Burris.
“To me, my dad was my hero,” said Burris, who is working with Bakersfield Southwest officials to rename the concession stand "Rich’s Dugout" featuring a commemorative plaque in his honor. “A lot of people didn’t know me, but they knew Rich Kellenberger’s daughter. It was just what every daughter wants, to have their dad be their hero. Everywhere we'd go, everyone would know him and he'd stop and have a conversation with them.
“A lot of people say how lucky he was to have his family there and taking care of him, although it’s the other way around. I feel like we were the ones that were lucky.”
Born in Fresno, Kellenberger graduate from Fresno High and served in the U.S. Army Reserves. He received an Associates degree from Fresno City College and Bachelor’s degree from Fresno State.
It was during his school days that Kellenberger first became interested in being an official. He used to tell the story that after watching him play, his coaches advised him to look into a different profession and suggested officiating.
He took their advice and worked as a referee and umpire for several years in the Fresno area before moving his family to Bakersfield in the late 1970s. He worked as an insurance agent at Walter Mortensen for 32 years, all the while spending most of his free time at ball fields all across the county.
“He was a pretty private guy and didn’t want a lot of attention on himself at all,” said Nick Ellis, Rich’s long-time friend who officiated with him for more than 20 years. “A very humble man. He cared more about the kids than anything. He was a huge supporter of youth sports in Kern County, not only as an official … he focused his life around the youth and making sure the kids were No. 1 and having fun. It was never about him, ever.”
Another former officiating colleague, Jack Queen, worked more than 15 years with Rich, who encouraged him to umpire high school baseball in 2004.
“He was a kind-hearted guy,” Queen said. “He was easy-going and a good mentor to the younger umpires. He was just an all-around great guy. He was very nice to everyone and I never saw him upset in all the years we worked together.”
In addition to his officiating “family,” Rich often included his own family. From a young age, Todd would work the sideline as part of the chain gang at football games.
It was during times together with his father that Todd gained a better understanding of his dad and how he felt about him.
“Dad never said ‘I love you’ or ‘I’m proud of you,’ or at least he did so rarely,” Todd recalled. “He would show his love … you would see my dad’s smile, and you’d know he was proud. You could see that he’s happy. You’d see that he loves you. And you could feel all that in his smile.”
And he knew.