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Merrillville trailblazing athletic director Janis Qualizza retiring

Dec 13, 2023

Six years after Congress passed Title IX in 1972 banning sexual discrimination in academics and athletics, Janis Qualizza became assistant athletic director at Merrillville High School.

In 1982, she replaced Tom Herbert and became Indiana's third woman high school athletic director.

In a field dominated by men, Qualizza stuck around for 45 years, leaving a mark on thousands of student athletes and a tangible reminder in the school's athletic facilities dominated by Demaree Stadium that looms next to Interstate 65.

The Merrillville School Board honored Qualizza on Tuesday with a plaque commemorating her retirement and accomplishments.

"For 45 years, she was a trailblazer for leadership within education," said Superintendent Nick Brown.

"Students return and speak of her with passion. We are not talking about someone who loves sports. We are talking about someone who loves children … and helps them become a better person."

After serving as assistant athletic director for six years, Qualizza pondered moving up when Herbert left. She won the job and soon plunged into former Superintendent Robert Schrenker's high school renovation plan that included a sports complex that rivaled many colleges.

It's anchored by the 7,000-seat Demaree Stadium, named after the school's first football coach. It included artificial grass, training and film rooms and showers and restrooms.

Qualizza said when she first learned of the renovation, she had no idea of its scope. She soon found out when school officials sought her suggestions.

"I’m one of those people, I’m not going to ask for a Chevy. I’m going to go for a Cadillac," she said.

Retiring Merrillville High athletic director Janis Qualizza, left, is pictured with her successor, Amy Beckham, on Tuesday,June 6, 2023 as the Merrillville School Board honored Qualizza, who served 45 years in the job. (Carole Carlson/Post-Tribune)

The high school's $54 million complex would also include a gym and swimming pool, 10 tennis courts, a running track, soccer field, three baseball and three softball fields and a field house.

"To this day, I think we still have one of the finest facilities in the state," Qualizza told the board.

Even as Qualizza steps away 45 years later, Indiana still just has a handful of women high school athletic directors.

In 1995, Qualizza became the first woman elected to the Indiana High School Athletic Association board of directors, serving its longest term until 2015.

Along the way, she's racked up a number of honors. In 2017, she was state athletic director of the year and in 2022, she was inducted into the Indiana Sports Hall of Fame along with MHS grad and NBA coach Gregg Popovich.

At the end of the month, Qualizza will be inducted into the MHS Hall of Fame, said her successor Amy Beckham.

"Your fingerprints, your DNA are part of this system," said school board member James Donohue.

Board member Linda Jonaitis said Qualizza served as her guide when she first joined the district as an administrator.

"You were a healthy role model to me, so I always understood what the standard was," she said.

Qualizza said she's content to depart with the athletic department in Beckham's hands. Recently, the board named former basketball coach Amy Govert as assistant athletic director.

Qualizza will continue to play a part-time role in the district as she helps establish a sports program for 5th-and-6th graders at the Merrillville Intermediate School.

Leaving was still a tough call for Qualizza, whose career began as a physical education teacher and coach.

"I tell people it's kind of bittersweet … but it's time to get out the door," she said.

Carole Carlson is a freelance reporter for the Post-Tribune.