To some, he was a tough, unyielding character who through action and word left no doubt to his thoughts or expectations.
To others, Charles “Ace” Heberling was an influential leader, outstanding NFL official and the man who brought the WPIAL to the forefront of high school athletics.
“The WPIAL’s best years were when Chuck was in charge,” said Jon Vallina, retired Burgettstown High School athletic director and golf coach. “When you dealt with him, there was no doubt who was in charge.”
Heberling, 94, died Monday at his home in McCandless.
“When you talk about the WPIAL, the first name that comes up is Chuck Heberling,” said Joe Maize, longtime baseball coach and athletic director at Peters Township High School. “He always had the best interest of the WPIAL at his core.”
Heberling was a 1949 graduate of Washington and Jefferson College, where he was three-time letterman in football and baseball. He played running back for the Presidents with Melvin Bassi, Walter Cooper and “Deacon” Dan Towler. Heberling was a top starting pitcher for W&J.
He was a former NFL official and worked three Super Bowls.
A native of Pittsburgh, Heberling attended Perry High School on the North Side.
During World War II, he served as a fighter pilot in the U.S. Navy, there he earned his nickname “Ace.”
Heberling later worked as a teacher and football/basketball coach at the former East Washington High School. He also worked as a salesman for General Electric in Pittsburgh.
He worked 23 years in the NFL, including 16 as a crew chief. He spent another 14 years as an observer. Heberling was an official in high school and college football for 15 years and basketball for 25 years.
He is a member of the Washington-Greene County Chapter of the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame, the WPIAL Hall of Fame and the Washington & Jefferson College Athletic Hall of Fame.
Heberling became executive director of the WPIAL in 1976. The WPIAL grew from being operated out of a basement into a highly respected and fiscally solvent sports organization with permanent headquarters and equality between boys and girls athletics.
He was headstrong and could be bold and brash, and he infuriated some with that style. At the same time, he was admired by others.
“He was cooperative with Washington High School,” said former Little Prexies athletic director Bob Wagner. “When we had issues, I don’t ever remember us having to challenge him. He was an excellent Little Prexies supporter.
“He was kind to Wash High. Chuck was always positive in our relationship, some he had with others were not as positive. He helped make the WPIAL. Whenever I had a problem, he helped resolve it. He might not have always been in your corner, but he never backed off a challenge.”
Heberling wasn’t always the easiest to deal with in terms of the media. However, there was no guessing about his thoughts or feelings.
“He took the WPIAL from the back room and put it in front of the shining lights of high school sports,” said longtime play-by-play announcer Bob Gregg of WJPA Radio. “Some of the things I appreciated about Ace is he told you what he thought and where you stood with him. The WPIAL would not be where it is today without Chuck Heberling.”
Heberling retired from the WPIAL in 1997, after 21 years. He was succeeded by Larry Hanley.
While Heberling was gone from the spotlight, his presence remained.
“There was always a special bond with us,” said Gene Steratore, former NFL official and current CBS football and basketball rules analyst. “We were two guys from this area who were NFL referees with the white hats. Ace and the WPIAL go hand-in-hand.
“When my brother, Tony, and I were doing WPIAL games and received that special phone call from the unmistakable voice, to be assigned a playoff game, it was great. The excitement of hearing from Charles is something I will never forget.
“You never left a conversation with Ace wondering what he meant. Because of his approach, he was a love-him or hate-him kind of guy. But he was firm and direct about what he believed. The world needs more of that.”
One of Heberling’s top achievements was to bring all WPIAL football championship games to Three Rivers Stadium.
Heberling was preceded in death – four years ago to the day – by his wife, Jane, and a son, Daniel. The couple’s three other children are sons Kevin and David and daughter Karen.
Tim O’Malley, the current executive director of the WPIAL, said Heberling’s legacy is clear.
“He meant everything to the WPIAL,” O’Malley said. “Ace was the WPIAL. If not for his vision and passion, who knows where high school athletics in Western Pennsylvania would be today.”