From Hallways and School Bells to Fire Trucks and Air Horns: West Holt superintendent finds connected purpose in two worlds

From Hallways and School Bells to Fire Trucks and Air Horns: West Holt superintendent finds connected purpose in two worlds

By Tyler Dahlgren

Paul Pistulka was in his late 30s when he accepted the superintendent position with West Holt Public Schools and moved his family of five to Atkinson.

Both he and his wife grew up in small Nebraska towns, cherished the experience and the memories and wished the same for their five children. Atkinson seemed to fit the bill, and though young in the scope of superintendency, Pistulka’s career track was already packed with experience, both in public and private education.

Many teachers come from long lines of educators. It’s in their blood, they often say. Pistulka did not. Mom was a nurse, Dad an engineer, and Paul figured he’d follow in his father’s footsteps. 

“I just didn’t enjoy it all that much,” Pistulka said. “But I did really enjoy coaching, like a lot of us do. Eventually, I found my niche in math, and ended up at a summer camp with a good friend of mine (Andrew Havelka, now the superintendent at Freeman Public Schools) in Beach Lake, PA, working as a counselor while I was in my education classes. I really enjoyed it. I knew that was what I wanted to do.”

Pistulka was hooked. Between coaching and teaching, he had found his calling.

He switched focuses, from engineering to education, graduated from UNL and began teaching math at Creighton Prep, where he also coached football and track and field. Five years later, he climbed into the world of administration, accepting an assistant principal position at Lincoln Pius X, where he worked for three years before moving west for a six-year stint as principal at Eustis-Farnam.

In 2015, he finished the Education Specialist program at Doane University and the Pistulkas were on the move once more, this time to Atkinson, where the greatest adventure yet awaited.

On the edge of the Sandhills, Pistulka would have an opportunity to put a lifelong love for community to good use. 

“There were some members of the school board who were on the fire department, and I got to know them very well and saw them as a staple in our new community, a group that people looked up to and depended on,” Pistulka said. “I’ve always thought service to our community was an important thing, and I knew the department was looking for people, so I threw my name in the hat and went through the interview process.”

When Pistulka was selected, he felt both extremely honored and, he laughs before coming clean, a little old. Become a superintendent at 38, and you’re young blood. Become a firefighter at 38, and you’re trying to keep up. 

“A lot of these guys are go-getters coming on at 22, 25, maybe 30-years-old, so it was kind of weird to do that,” Pistulka said. “And I like to believe I’m in well-enough physical condition to keep up, but there’s still some guys who run circles around me, too.”

Atkinson Fire Department’s newest firefighter was up for it then and, five years later, is up for it now. Living life between school bells and fire truck air horns is a time-consuming juggling act few educators attempt, but it’s been done in communities across the state. For Pistulka, pulling double duties engrained him even deeper into his new town.

“Being able to be at the social events the fire department holds, the pancake feeds and the Atkinson Hay Days celebrations, that’s been valuable,” said Pistulka, who carries a radio with him everywhere and often fields questions on whether it’s for school or the fire department. “The people of our community see that I’m willing to put myself out there and I think that creates trust. People understand that this guy is not just a flash in the pan. He’s here to be part of our community.”

His students see it too. They see their superintendent in uniform during the Patriots Day program on 9/11. There’s a message in there somewhere, and it’s sent with intention.

“What we’re really trying to do is encourage our kids to be servants to their community, to want to come back to their community and to understand what it means to serve our community with nothing in return expected,” he explained. “When you go on an ambulance call or a fire scene, you aren’t there because you’re expecting anything in return. You’re there to do your job and to do it as well as you can to keep people safe and the damage to a minimum.”

Pistulka said his day mirrors the average superintendent’s day. He gets to school early, does his “gig”, and then balances a bevy of responsibilities at night. He might miss a few basketball games or choir concerts for fire drills here and there, but school comes first, and both sides offer mutual support.

“The other administrators and coaches and school board, I couldn’t do this without their support,” he said. “Everyone understands that if it’s a life or death situation, or a situation where we’re trying to save property, you drop everything and go. You go and that’s what you do, and people understand that.”

There are parallels in Pistulka’s two worlds. For example, each requires a deep level of empathy. His teachers have it, and so do his fellow firefighters. He’s been able to transfer lessons learned during 21 years in education to the fire department, and vice-versa. 

“People have come to understand and realize who I am and understand that I have the interest of our kids first and foremost, and that’s what we’re about here at West Holt,” Pistulka said.

He worries, too. 

“I tell our seniors every year at graduation rehearsal that I worry every time my radio goes off that it’s first, my own children, or secondly, that it’s someone who I will know through the school, and especially that it’s one of my students,” he said. “I tell them to be smart, to make good decisions. But I do worry. I worry all the time.”

Pistulka, not one for standing stagnant, will take EMT classes when they’re offered in Atkinson next year. He finds it a touch ironic that his school district and his fire department share a singular mission; to serve others. 

“I hope the students live with an understanding of serving and helping the people around them,” he said. “Whether it’s a big city or a little town, you have to be able to help those around you, because someday, no matter who you are, you’re going to be the person who’s going to need that.”

On Wednesday nights, Pistulka teaches CCD at his church and still continues to coach. His daughter’s 12-and-under softball team has had a pretty darn good season, he adds. He enjoys fishing and this time of year you can usually find him at a ballfield catching a game. 

Mostly, he’s trying to spend as much free time around his family as he can. 

But when a call comes through and the radio sounds, he’s off.

“What I hope is that whatever day it is that I pass from this earth, the community can say that Mr. Pistulka gave himself to us and wanted to help people,” he said. “That’s what I hope.”

*Editor’s Note: Pistulka isn’t the only administrator to serve in their local fire department. During the next school year, NPSA will bring you more stories of Nebraska educators who are burning the candle at both ends. Keep an eye out for these articles, and if you know of one yourself, shoot me an email at!