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Former Whitehall athletic director Greg Russell keeps an eye on the action during a March district game between the Vikings and Spring Lake. Russell retired after the 2020-21 school year.

After nearly 35 years at Whitehall in various roles, Greg Russell has decided now is the time to retire, leaving the athletic director position. He will continue with the school in a part-time role this year to aid in the transition to his replacement, Brian Beebe, who was previously athletic director at Clare. Beebe taught and coached girls basketball at Montague for three seasons from 2013-16.

Russell’s long-term plan almost since the beginning was to retire around this time. He said he considered working another year as AD, but with the West Michigan Conference realigning after this school year and the attendant scheduling changes that presents, he thought it best to give Beebe a year to break in to the position.

“I had a discussion with (superintendent) Jerry McDowell and our new principal Brett Westerlund,” Russell said. “If I were to leave after next year, throw my keys on the table and leave, the next guy would have no clue what had happened (to get the WMC to this point)...It’ll enable me to help Brian acclimate to Whitehall. He’s a Muskegon guy, so he’s not starting from scratch.

“The timing was right. I go back to lots of my mentors, and they always said, you know when it’s time to pass the torch and let the next guy or girl have a shot at it.”

Russell came to Whitehall in 1987, fresh out of college at Central Michigan University, as a teacher and basketball coach, with the long-term goal of becoming a superintendent. He taught for seven school years before moving into an assistant principal and athletic director role at Whitehall Middle School in 1994. After doing that job for 10 school years, Russell found himself laid off in 2004. At that point, he and wife Patti’s two children, Aaron and Matt, were already of school age. They discussed potentially leaving the area; Russell said he was fortunate enough to have connections such that he could’ve easily procured another job, though Patti, who worked at Mercy Health, would have to find one too if they left. However, they talked it out and reached the same conclusion.

“The truth is, I couldn’t find a better place to be,” Russell said, chuckling. “I grew up in Mason County. I’ve been to Traverse City, Petoskey — I love the water, so I’m just thinking of the west side of the state. I couldn’t find a better small-town feel.

“Patti and I are not from here. We have zero family or friends coming in. We were so welcomed to the school community. It just felt right. If you’ve been elsewhere and had interactions with people elsewhere and listened to what they’re dealing with, Whitehall is just a good place to be.”

So the Russells stayed, with Greg taking a teaching job at the middle school for eight more years. Eventually he found his way to the athletic director position in 2012, impressing superintendent Jerry McDowell during the interview process with his “unified Viking team” ethos that has long permeated the district and continues to today, through longtime teachers and coaches like Warren Zweigle, Kirk Mikkelson and Bryan Mahan.

Through his work at Whitehall, Greg was also able to watch up close as Aaron and Matt grew and graduated from the school. Both were athletes. Aaron now works for Peterson Farms in Shelby, and Matt followed in his dad’s footsteps, teaching science at East Lansing High School.

Not that Greg needed reminding, but he said he got another glimpse of how right his decision was to stay just weeks ago, when he and Patti went out to dinner and were greeted at least five different times by former Whitehall students.

Russell leaves Whitehall a better district than when he arrived, especially as it pertains to sports. When he got here, the Vikings had no football, baseball or softball field, nor a cross-country course, to call their own, and had a cinder track and only a couple of gyms. Now Whitehall students have all the ingredients they need to be successful on the field, plus some, with the 2020 opening of the Viking Athletic Center the latest athletic-related flourish.

“Whitehall couldn’t be in a better place right now for kids and what we have to offer,” Russell said. “For an average-sized Class B district, I don’t think there’s a better one. I think it’s a perfect blend of being big enough to offer enough but small enough so everyone knows everyone.”

Russell was not on the committee that hired Beebe, and believes a retiring person should not choose their successor, but he said he was pleased with the choice and looks forward to easing his transition to the Whitehall role as the WMC undergoes drastic changes in the 2022-23 school year.

“He has connections to the WMC,” Russell said. “I think that’s important. I’m biased, but I think it’s a special place. I think it’s only going to get better. The tiers will benefit all the schools. Brian was at Montague as a coach and grew up in Ravenna. His family lives here, and his wife teaches at Coopersville. I couldn’t be happier to see who they selected.”

Russell won’t be a stranger for sure, but as his active role at Whitehall District Schools ends, he has a strong sense of gratitude for the life it afforded him.

“If there’s any way, (I want) to say thank you to the community and the school district for a great 35 years,” Russell said. “I couldn’t be happier with where I started and where I ended up.”

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