SEBRING - During a period of more than 30 years, hundreds of Highlands County students learned about music and playing instruments from Paul Gustat.
"He was a great teacher," said Bob Fritz, a former student who later played music at churches. He said Gustat was one of the five most influential teachers he had in school from elementary school through college.
Gustat, who was band director at Sebring High School for around 30 years, died Oct. 17 at the age of 92.
As a band director, Gustat carried on the work of his father, Peter Gustat, who started the Sebring High School Band in 1926. Peter Gustat had developed a program that led to Sebring High School bands competing and winning against bands from much larger schools.
His son continued that tradition during much of his career with the school system and retired around 1979, but returned to teach for seven years at Fred Wild Elementary School. Hill-Gustat Middle School was partly named for him and his father.
"He was a wonderful father, a wonderful grandfather and a wonderful great-grandfather," said Merrilou "Skee" Gustat, his widow.
At the time of his death, she said, they were approaching their 70th wedding anniversary on Dec. 2. They had met at the Dodge City Armory in Kansas where her father and Gustat were stationed during World War II, she recalled.
"I think it was sort of love at first sight, if that doesn't sound too corny," she said. "We dated for 13 months before we married."
During the war, she said, her husband was a member of the Air Force band. Although he wasn't directly involved in combat, at times, she said, he wasn't far away from it.
"They actually traveled into combat areas and played for the troops," she said.
After the war, she said, they moved to Sebring in March 1946 and soon afterwards her husband began his career as a band and music teacher.
During the years after that, Gustat recalled that she traveled on many trips with her husband and the band students. She said the band played one year during the Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, D.C., and at a governor's inauguration during the 1970s.
One year the Sebring High School band performed in Mexico, she said, adding that she believes it was done in a stadium.
While the music was important, working with the students is what made him want to continue in his career, she said.
"He enjoyed the students," he said. "He loved what he was doing."
Fritz said the students felt the same way. He said he knows of at least 14 of those students who pursued music careers.
In archives at the Sebring Historical Society, students had fond memories of Gustat.
"He truly was instrumental in affirming my value as a young woman, who at that point in my life was living in a most unhappy home," recalled Sallie M. Grow. "He CARED and I knew it."
Marian Weeks Lanier wrote that what she gained from participating in the band stayed with her for years to come.
"My participation in the Sebring High School Band and as its drum majorette instilled and inspired the great love of music I still have today," she wrote. "Paul Gustat was a special teacher and is a special person."
Gustat was also known as a teacher who maintained discipline in his class.
"He was strict, but kind," his widow said.
Funeral services will be Wednesday at 2 p.m. at First United Methodist Church in Sebring.