The school bell is finally sounding for Kevin Lester.He's been part of the Williamsville school district for 46 years, and will retire when the current school year concludes. Lester has been the athletic director at Williamsville South since 1985, and has seen a lot of students come and go over the years. He's also accumulated a ton of memories about a place where every hallway and athletic banner can spark a story.
There will be a lot of institutional knowledge that will walk out the door when Lester finally leaves. Education has seen great changes in those four-plus decades in some ways, but in others it's still the same. He recently sat down in the Williamsville South gymnasium, which he helped design, and gave an hour-long "exit interview" about his experiences and thoughts concerning high school sports. Here are some highlights:
The Buffalo News: How did you start working in the Williamsville schools?
Kevin Lester: I went to Bishop Turner High School. I played baseball at Indiana University for a year, and then transferred to St. Bonaventure. I loved it there. A neighbor later told me there was an opening at Maple East Elementary. I sent a letter and resume in, and I was hired in 1971.
The first day, I remember an art teacher telling me he had been doing it for seven years. I said, "Seven years? No way will I do this for seven years. I'll do it for five years." Forty-six and a half years later, because I worked a half-year at Bishop Turner, I'm winding it down now.
News: How many different sports over the years have you coached?
Lester: I had one class at Williamsville North, and I taught football and wrestling there. I came to Williamsville South and taught baseball. My first day in the building at South, I got the baseball job. A teacher came up to that day and asked who the hell I thought I was, because he was supposed to get the job. I said, I applied for the job and I got it. Brian Hansen and I coached together for many years. I coached football, baseball, basketball, golf, volleyball, wrestling. Anytime there was an opening, I said I'd do it.
News: What's your philosophy when it comes to the students?
Lester: People talk about kids today. Well, kids are the same as when the cavemen were around. By definition, kids are going to mess up. If they didn't they wouldn't need me or any other teacher. I look at it by saying there are no bad kids - there are just kids who need more guidance. Some of the kids who were the most trouble in high school are now some of the most productive people you've ever met - medicine, business, law. You can't take a 15-year-old and say he or she is a bad kid. You work with them.
News: If the students haven't changed much over the years, the parents probably have. It's been said that parents are much quicker to take the side of their child than they used to be in any dispute with the school. How do you handle that?
Lester: That happens all over the country. These are discussions that teachers have and old guys like me have. Many parents think their children don't do anything wrong. You have to be a total diplomat. If the parents are former students of mine, that makes it easy. I support them and their child. It's tougher if they are parents I don't know.
I'm not afraid to tell a parent that he or she is right. I've got great coaches, but there are times when they haven't made the right decision. That's when my diplomatic skills come into play. You have to let the coach know that he or she has to talk to the parent. If the coach was out of line, we'll get together and fix things.
News: The cost of college has skyrocketed in recent years, and there's pressure on everyone in athletics when it comes to scholarships. What's that done?
Lester: There are a lot of parents who see their children excel in athletics, and they are great kids. But parents don't always see Division I athletes close up in other areas. They might see their kids play and see a Division I athlete. My sons played Division III sports, and some of D-III schools in New York have the best teams in the class in the country. The parents don't see that.
Our job is to give the kids a positive situation. If they are a D-I player, the coaches will find them. There's not a lot of Division I players in Western New York by percentage. That's a hard realization for a parent.
News: Right outside the door, the school is building a new stadium with an all-weather field. It's not cheap. At a time when budgets receive a great deal of scrutiny and get tighter by the year, is it difficult to sell athletics as a priority?
Lester: That's a fair question and an interesting question. It's a lot of money. We've had trouble over the years with the football field. We had to shut it down once because of grubs. But it's time. Williamsville has been ranked as the No. 1 school district. They took a lot of things under consideration besides academics, and one of them is athletics. We want to put our kids on the best playing fields possible.
There is a cost. Can you do other things with that money? Sure. You can hire more teachers, or cut class sizes. But it was time to do it. We got great support from the community when the vote took place. If it didn't pass, I'd still enjoy every game but feel bad that the kids are playing in mud. Kids want to feel good about themselves. They came back from other places and say, "Mr. Lester, when are we going to get something like this?" I'm not big on fanfare, but let's enjoy it. Let's give the kids a good facility to play on.
News: Maybe the biggest change you've faced is to include girls in athletic programs. You were starting almost from zero.
Lester: Love it. It's the best. I love watching girls' athletics. When I see the skill level now in volleyball, softball, basketball, field hockey - it's amazing. Where did that come from?
When I first started, we had the GAA - Girls Athletic Association. We had six girls on a basketball court bound by squares. They didn't wear uniforms, they wore bloomers. But it's been great. We were the first ones to have girls play a lot of sports. We put it together and the other teams followed us.
News: One issue that frequently comes up in high school sports is recruiting. How does that affect you?
Lester: It's one of the toughest things out there - the movement of players from one school to another. We're an extension of society. We discuss recruiting all the time. Parents always want what's best for their sons and daughters. If they move to a new school district, and it's because they want a kid to play on a team, you can't tell a parent that a son or daughter can't do that. We've had so many good teams in different sports that parents will move from one area to another to have a son or daughter participate. We're in a fish bowl.
News: Then there are the times when students go the other way, from your school to another school. What's your relationship been like with private schools?
Lester: I went to Bishop Turner, and I've always been a supporter of those schools. Many of my teams here play St. Joe's, Canisius, Timon. We will play them because we want to see how we'll do because they are always highly ranked. There are Athletic Directors who don't want to deal with them because they take our players. But that's how they survive. If you have a kid in grammar school and I'm from Canisius, I'm coming to that school and say, 'Come to my school.' I do have trouble with a sophomore that's outstanding and they come after him. That's a little unfair.
News: What are some other issues that have come up in recent years?
Lester: There are transgender issues now that we are sensitive about. If my boss tells me it's the rule, that's what happens. I consider myself a good soldier. And the concussion issue is big. We impact test everyone now - even bowlers and golfers. The best thing is come along over the years is athletic trainers. We have a gentleman, Bob O'Malley, who is like a doctor of everything. He's at all our contact games and everything that's on campus. Every banquet, he gets the MVP award. He is so good with our athletes.
News: How has your life changed since you decided to retire?
Lester: I've had people come to my house and try to talk me out of it. A guy I taught and coached who supports my programs came to me and said, "This can't happen." I've gotten phone calls.
No matter when I was going to retire, I knew it would be very emotional for me. The day after I decided, walking through the halls was different. When I looked at every kid's face, I knew these would be the kids I'd remember. My fingerprints are all over this complex - the plans, the drawings, the colors.
I'm really going to miss it. I'll have some part in it, but I'll miss being the master of ceremonies. When I look back at my career, I look back at great people and the relationships and support I've had. Everything has been great.