Kimberly Westrich Zustiak (’95) Named 2024 PAVA Hall of Fame Inductee

Kimberly Westrich Zustiak (’95) has built a masterful career as a renowned Missouri educator in speech, theatre and debate. For her efforts, she will take a bow this year as an inductee into Notre Dame Regional High School’s Performing and Visual Arts (PAVA) Hall of Fame.

She will be inducted on August 10 at Notre Dame during the high school’s inaugural Queen of Victory Evening of Excellence honoring recipients of the Bob Miller Award, NDHS Education Fund Foundation Annunciation Award, and inductees into the Athletic Hall of Fame. Don Maurer (’74), will be the keynote speaker.

PAVA recognizes Notre Dame alumni or past or present faculty who have excelled in the performing or visual arts. PAVA inductees serve as role models of achievement for current and future students, instilling in them the knowledge that they, too, are capable of personal and professional success.

Zustiak contemplated her forthcoming induction when she attended Notre Dame’s 2024 spring musical, glancing through the program and perusing the biographies of previous PAVA inductees.

“I feel a lot of impostor syndrome,” she said. “I’m just a teacher. Some of these people are doing amazing things.”

As is she. Zustiak’s calling into speech, debate and the musical arts took hold at a young age when she and her family regularly attended Notre Dame’s spring musicals.

“We went to all of them,” she said, explaining a lineage of family members always seemed to be in the casts. Barnum is the first Notre Dame musical she vividly recalls.

“It just seemed like the thing you did,” she said. “I guess I grew up with the expectation these are the things you do in my family.”

Her junior year, she garnered a large role in the musical, and, thanks in part to a group of accomplished Notre Dame teachers who prepared her for a lifetime grounded in the performing arts, the rest is history.

“I had so many great teachers during my time at Notre Dame. They were all formative in shaping who I am as an educator,” she said. “Some particularly notable teachers from my time are Betty Cox, Lenny Kuper and my uncle (the late) Jerry Grim. But, obviously, Deana Pecord, Ellen Seyer, Dinah Strickert and, of course, Cindy King had massive influences on me. They were the ones who introduced me to the performance aspect of musical theatre, and who fostered my love for it.”

Zustiak blossomed at Notre Dame, where, in addition to the musicals, she found success in concert choir and girls basketball.

Danna Westrich Bruns (’91), instructional technology specialist in the Jackson R-2 School District and Kim’s sister, nominated her for the PAVA induction.

“Kim has been a role model for her students and children,” wrote Bruns. “She is a kind and caring person who devotes many hours outside of the school day to her students to help them excel in their passions of speech and theatre.”

Following her graduation from Notre Dame, Zustiak, a Kelso, Missouri, native, matriculated to Southeast Missouri State University with the intention of majoring in elementary education. Not long into her college career, she began considering transferring schools, but a Theatre Appreciation class and an Acting I course changed her trajectory.

While in Acting I, she was asked to audition for a play in which she admits she had no interest in participating. Begrudgingly, she followed through on the invitation, later being stunned to learn she’d been cast in the lead role.

Being in the play changed everything, she said, adding the role was pivotal in “finding my group of friends,” many of whom she remains close to today.

She went on at Southeast to excel in theatre as a member of both University Players and the Black Mask Honorary Dramatic Society, and participated in several productions. She and two other Southeast students collaboratively directed Plaza Suite on the main stage in 1998, earning accolades from the American College Theater Festival.

From there, she had hopes of pursuing directing roles and of earning a Master of Fine Arts. But those plans changed when she met “a boy” who became her husband, she said. Ultimately, she became a Southeast alumna, earning a bachelor of arts with a major in speech communication, interpersonal and small group communication option, and theatre in 1999, and a bachelor of science in education, secondary education-speech in 2002.

Soon thereafter, her career took hold as a dedicated teacher, where she has invested deeply in helping high school students explore their interests in speech and theatre. She spent two decades at Seckman High School in Imperial, Missouri, in the Fox C-6 School District coaching extraordinarily successful speech, theatre and debate teams, directing 40 plays and musicals, and managing the district debate tournament.

Additionally, she has served on the Missouri State High School Activities Association Speech, Debate and Theatre Advisory Committee, earned a master’s degree in education from Southwest Baptist University, and was recognized for her talents as the 2019-2020 Missouri Speech, Debate and Theatre Educator. The honor recognizes individuals for making significant contributions to quality programs that improve and promote performance education in their school communities.

Perhaps the productions she is most proud of during her career came in 2021 when she stepped in six days prior to opening night to finish a show that her friend, Diana, a fellow theatre teacher, had in mid-production when Diana was diagnosed with a brain tumor. And later that summer, Zustiak directed a community theatre production of Shrek the Musical, to benefit Diana’s family.

“In doing so, I formed close friendships with many of her co-workers, students and their parents — so much so, that we decided we needed to hold a fundraiser for Diana’s family,” Zustiak said. “What started as a talent show concept quickly grew into us mounting a full-scale musical. I was so proud to direct what was quite possibly one of the largest community theatre productions of Shrek the Musical that has ever happened that summer for my best friend and her family. We were able to raise $15,000 to help offset her treatment costs.

“While technically not part of my ‘career,’ I think this show is the one I’m most proud of for many, many reasons.”

Zustiak is currently teaching speech, debate and video production at Clayton (Missouri) High School where she also directs the school’s speech and debate program and coaches its formidable 90-member speech and debate team. She recently was recognized for her talents with the District New Coach of the Year for 2023-2024 by the National Speech & Debate National Forensic League for the Eastern Missouri District.

Reflecting on her teaching journey, she dismisses any notion of her role in inspiring the next generation for success in speech, debate and musical theater.

More importantly, she says, “I hope I’m teaching people to be good humans.”

Zustiak and her husband, Caleb, are the parents of a son, Connor, and a daughter, Riley.