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Jeffrey Costello: A small-town boy who wouldn't have it another way

At the lone pizza place in Barker, copies of old Barker School District yearbooks -- some dating to the Eisenhower administration -- dot every table, next to the napkins and paper menus.

Here, you can trace Jeffrey Costello's journey.

In one yearbook, he's a bespectacled, somber-looking sixth-grader. In another, he's the senior class president with a Tony Danza haircut and just a hint of a mustache.

Scan the yearbooks from more-recent years, and you'll still find pictures of Costello -- plenty of pictures. These days, he's a teaching assistant -- but known by most kids as "Coach" -- junior varsity field hockey, girls varsity basketball and boys JV baseball.

For a brief moment before Costello graduated from high school, he entertained dreams of going to a big college with a Division I athletics program.

Instead, he stayed true to his small-town roots and chose Paul Smith's College, nestled in the Adirondacks. But once he got there, he decided six hours was too far from home, and 850 students was too big for his comfort level.

"I was scared to death to go away from Barker," he said. "In high school, I was a big fish in a small pond. I've always been a small-town type of person. I've always liked the small-town atmosphere."

After his freshman year at Paul Smith's, Costello came back to Western New York. He enrolled at Buffalo State College, where he lived in the dorms while he earned his bachelor's degree in business and distributive education. Once he graduated, he headed right back to Barker.

In 1994, the Barker School District offered him a job supervising the high school computer lab. Over the next few years, the position evolved. Now, Costello is the teaching assistant in charge of audiovisual equipment for the district. He is part teacher, part tech guy, part district documentarian.

He oversees the morning announcements, which are produced live from the district's video studio adjacent to his office; maintains the district's DVD players, TVs, radios and other equipment; teaches middle school students how to edit videos; helps teachers produce study skills videos; and puts together a DVD of the school musical, among other things.

Throughout the day, clusters of students gravitate during their free periods to Room 153, his office/classroom -- a handful of the kids doing independent studies with him in video editing, but even more just wanting to be in the orbit of the man they call "Coach."

"He's great," said Barker High School principal John Hoar. "He's just a fireball of energy."

Costello enjoys his day job, but it's what happens in the athletic arena after the final bell that's really his passion.

Pictures of his field hockey, basketball and baseball teams plaster one wall in his office. Framed photos of various field hockey players over the years hang on the wall over his desk. One plaque, boasting an unbeaten field hockey season in 1999, declares him "coach for the millennium."

He knows he could make more money as a full-fledged teacher, but says he's happy with his work.

"By not being a teacher, I'm not giving exams. I'm not giving tests. I'm just interacting with the kids," he said. "It's not as structured. It's not a traditional student-teacher thing -- it's more hands-on, more interactive."

Costello would love to have children of his own. That dream was put on hold seven and a half years ago, when his then-fiancee was struck unresponsive by seizures that altered her brain, leaving her nursing home-bound at 35. He visited her daily for two years.

"I always felt like she knew I was there," he said. "To me, she just reacted differently than with other people."

As time wore on, the visits became more difficult for him. The last time he went to see her, he couldn't bring himself to go into her room.

Costello still grieves the loss of the family and the future the two of them might have had. But he remains hopeful that he might one day find someone to settle down with -- in Barker, of course.

"If the day comes that I get married and have kids, I would love for them to go here," he said. "There's a lot to be said for kids who are raised in a small community."

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