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About a week or so from his final days before retirement as athletics director at Whitefish Bay High School, John Gustavson was doing one of his favorite tasks.

He was filling manila envelopes with medals, bronze, silver and gold, and somewhere around his office were some highly coveted plaques. They were going to student/athletes who had participated in three sports (or in the case of the very busy senior Macklin Kortebein, four) this past school year.

Bronze were for freshmen, silver for sophomores, gold for juniors and plaques for seniors. It's been a long-standing ritual with a good purpose behind it.

'We started this around my second year (2004-05) as a way of trying to encourage kids to do multiple sports,' he said. 'To be true multisport athletes.'

It's all part of a culture change that Gustavson helped foster.

There were many, many medals going into the underclassmen envelopes, but only about a half-dozen senior plaques issued, a telling statistic in the age of specialization.

But before anyone issues a complaint about those seniors, Gustavson is happy to point out that 145 members of this recent graduating class participated in at least one sport this past year. As his 13 years as AD winds down, he sees the glass as way more than half-full at Bay.

'We have a 70 percent participation rate,' he said. 'At least 70 percent of the kids participate in at least one sport a year.'

It's an impressive feat for a school of around 950 students.

Renovated program

They have choices as traditional as football, basketball, baseball, wrestling or track, or they can opt for newer activities such as hockey, lacrosse, girls golf, snowboarding or skiing. Gustavson, whose title also includes activities director, also proudly points to a photo on his office wall of a recent student theater production of 'The Crucible.'

It sits next to shot of a pack of Bay cross-country runners (a signature sport at the school) taking off at the start of a race on a beautiful fall day.

As Gustavson said, it's all part of the culture change at Bay. The switch that has included more in-school coaches than Bay has had in many years, a well-received Athletics Hall of Fame and vast community and district cooperation in upgrading the facilities.

That included the groundbreaking 2007 improvements made to Lubar Stadium, home of the football, soccer and track teams among others.

It has also included the state-of-the-art artificial turf softball field on campus, an artificial-turf baseball stadium at Cahill Park (done in conjunction with the infrastructure upgrade the village embarked upon after the disastrous floods of 2010), a new floor surface in the school's venerable old fieldhouse (also needed courtesy of the floods), upgrades to the fieldhouse in general and improvements to the pool, which has allowed Bay to host WIAA sectional swim meets in recent years.

These things would not have happened, said Gustavson, without the help of former Superintendent James Rickabaugh, community fundraiser extraordinaire Carl Fuda, area philanthropist (and Bay graduate) Sheldon Lubar, Shawn Yde and others.

'Part of the process'

Gustavson's time at the school has been little short of breathless.

'I was just part of the process,' he said. 'We're a bit land-locked here, so we had to work to make our space more usable.'

A Bay resident since 1984, Gustavson arrived at the high school 13 years ago after 19 successful years at neighboring Nicolet High School, where he was a math teacher. He also spent 14 years as head of the Knights powerful girls basketball team.

'It's all evolved,' said Gustavson. 'I loved teaching, and I loved coaching. It's what I wanted to do and that's why I entered administrative work at a later date, age 44. I knew I could keep doing what I was doing and do it well, but I wanted a challenge.'

But he said he was 'very picky' about which school he wanted to go to.

'It's like I said in my interview, I wanted to go to a place where the school is named after the community,' he said. 'So the kids are not just playing for a school, but for the community itself.'

In that regard, Bay now reminds him of the attitude and spirit of his own home school Wauwatosa East.

After a couple of interesting transition years, during which he had to make people believe he was truly a Bay backer and not just a Nicolet transplant, Gustavson started making the job his own. He said he got great help from what he called a 'very stable' leadership at the school.

He is proud of what has happened during his time.

'I had questions in those first couple of years if whether I made the right decision or not,' he said, 'but in the long run, I'm very happy that I made it.'

As he prepares to pass the baton to Jason Kasmarick on July 1, Gustavson notes that the job is never short on challenges no matter how good things appear to be. Specialization remains an issue. Kasmarick will have to hire some new fall coaches quickly, as positions opened just recently.

'When I sat down down with the candidates, I told them that they needed to guard against being satisfied with what's there and not striving to make it better,' said Gustavson. 'Everyone has a different vision of what things should be like, but if you do something different, just make sure you leave it better (than when you started).

'Students aren't the same as they were 20 years ago or even 10 years ago. I've told coaches that they need to adapt to that. That they have to make it attractive to the kids. You can make it fun for them, but you also have to give them a chance to succeed. You have to find that sweet spot.'

It's something Gustavson has helped North Shore athletes find for quite some time.