He put students first for more than 40 years

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Todd Mishler | April 28, 2017

ELKHORN -- He put students first for more than four decades. Individualized education programs, meetings with teachers, listening to parental concerns and wrangling over budgets were only a few items on his weekly agenda.

Greg Kostechka no longer worries about these things. That's because he retired in March after 42 years at Lakeland School, the centerpiece of Walworth County's special education system.

Naturally, ending such a long association and career created many bittersweet moments for the Mishicot native, who went to school at Manitowoc Roncalli before attending college and playing basketball at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.

"It was my intention and goal to retire at age 66," he said. "I don't have the energy I used to, so it was simply the right time. They were hoping I would stay longer, but it was just time to make that break. It was emotional because of how close and supportive everybody is there.

"Obviously, Lakeland is unique in that you're dealing with all special needs, but the entire staff is like a family, and you don't have that in many other places," he added about a facility with 200-plus students and more than 100 teachers and support staffers.

Kostechka worked as an adaptive physical education teacher for 19 years and was a certified swimming instructor and aquatics director. He served as the school's principal during his final 23 years.

The father of four has coached baseball, basketball, soccer, track and swimming either through school, Special Olympics or recreation programs.

Kostechka's interest in special education and love for coaching stemmed from the inspiration he received from his brother, Joe. The latter was born with Down syndrome, sadly passing away Feb. 1 at age 49.

"I've always enjoyed coaching and working with that population," Kostechka said of those with special needs. "I've learned so much … it's always been an emotional thing for me because of my brother. It's provided a sense of accomplishment and a sense of purpose."

Those attributes run hand in hand at Lakeland School, which provides services to students with disabilities from ages 3 to 21 while serving all 15 school districts in the county.

The school started in September 1950 in a leased basement of the downtown Elkhorn VFW building with space sufficient to help the original 14 enrollees. A lot has changed since then, especially after its move from Court Street to the new location on County Highway NN in 2008.

And Kostechka traveled through most of those peaks and valleys along the way.

"I sure couldn't have done this by myself," he said. "Administrator Tracy Moate was always looking at what we needed. We had great teams in which everybody knew their roles and strengths, and people stepped in if needed. Whether it required speech or occupational therapists, an administrator or counselor, we had a plan in place to work with each individual student and their situation. And I was so pleased that our parents were overwhelmingly supportive."

The importance of the new and improved location can't be discounted, Kostechka said.
It has provided much more room and thus bigger and better working conditions and technology capabilities. It also has allowed for better communication and coordination among staff members.

"Walworth County stuck its neck out for us, so the county board deserves kudos for getting a facility like this," he said of a project that cost $18 million. "It allowed us to have smaller class sizes and to have all of the support people go right into the classrooms and work with the students."

That point hits home for Kostechka, literally and figuratively. His wife, Patty, works as an educational assistant at the Wisconsin School for the Deaf in Delavan.

But helping those less fortunate, especially kids, is what it's all about.

"I'm most proud of when the kids came into our building every morning, they had smiles on their faces and seemed excited to be there," he said. "We tried to give them opportunities. I'm also proud of our staff because they have good hearts and are there for a reason."

The unassuming Kostechka said it didn't matter what it said on his nameplate, working at Lakeland meant being one cog in a machine that needed every part working together to run properly.

"I've always enjoyed being with people and enjoyed the individual conversations," Kostechka said. "I've always been pretty low-key … I'm not one to stand up and say, 'Look at me.' I tried to lead by example. But my style as a teacher or administrator wasn't just to sit behind a desk. I got out and visited with students and people."

That's what he and Patty hope to continue doing in the coming years. They plan to take plenty of day trips in Wisconsin. Kostechka also will remain physically active.

He swims twice a week and puts on 1,500 miles a year on his bike. He enjoys vegetable gardening, and a new adventure will see him and one of his two sons, Casey, getting into beekeeping. He's also a Cubs and Packers fan, so attending games and keeping up with his favorite teams are high on his list.

But the thing he's looking forward to more than anything?

"Sunday nights," he said, knowing that he doesn't have to worry about Mondays, Tuesdays …

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