In his first year as Burleigh Elementary School's principal, Bil Zahn hired Missy Petersdorf as his secretary.
"He has good taste," she quips.
That was 1990.
In the 22 years since, Zahn has attended Petersdorf's wedding, witnessed her daughter enroll and "graduate" from Burleigh and spent countless hours together.
"We're good friends," she said.
That's how many people felt who attended Zahn's retirement open house / cookout after school Friday.
"I don't think I could think of a person better suited to be an elementary grade school principal," said Santo Mirasola, who supervises the school playground at lunch recesses.
"He loves the kids, and they love him," Mirasola said.
Petersdorf said Zahn knows how to discern people's talents and then give them freedom to tap them.
Emily Gaskell, a Burleigh graduate finishing her sixth grade at Pilgrim Park Middle School, fondly remembered her former principal.
"He was always entertaining," she said.
Zahn was a huge supporter of the arts as an important complement to academics. Students need to learn how to "perform" in real life, at work and in social settings, with self-confidence and humor, he teaches.
Musicals and plays were big at Burleigh under his leadership. And T-shirts bearing those events — plus the school's annual themes — were on a homemade quilt created by former PTO president Shelley Botchek.
Monument sign unveiled
The quilt was a gift presented to Zahn Friday morning at an all-school assembly to unveil a new school monument sign. The sign was funded not by district funds but by years of donations from chicken dinners.
"We have saved all these years - that sign is the result of 20 years worth of chicken dinners," Zahn said. "About 2,500 chickens sacrificed their necks for that sign."
The students also surprised him with a special marker honoring his 22 years, from the 2012 student council. It reads:
Dedicated to our Principal: Bil Zahn 1990-2012 "Smarting Small, Finishing Tall"
Also admired by many Friday was a mural made in honor of Zahn by art teacher Fran Korthof and the entire Burleigh student body and staff.
New mural of clay faces
"We wanted to commemorate how supportive he's been of the arts," said Korthof, who has taught art for 10 years at Burleigh.
Students used mirrors to draw their own faces on paper, which they traced using sharpened pencils onto quarter-inch thick squares of clay, fired in the school's kiln. Students then used underglazes to add eye colors and other touches before a second kiln firing.
Mosiac artist Carrie O'Malley created the center mosiac with this year's theme: Celebrating the You in Burleigh.
Elmbrook Facilities Manager Rick Domach and his custodial staff mounted a cement board onto the school wall to which the clay faces and mosiac were affixed.
The finished product contains the clay faces of some 612 students, 65 staff members and yes, one Bil Zahn.