Former Sequim educator remembered as mentor, inspiration

With few classroom desks uncluttered with piles of books and journals and stacks of paper, the Sequim Middle School teacher would help her students rise up out of the chaos with remarkable stories from the past.

“I don’t want history to be reduced to dates and names,” said Tricia Billes from her room in 2006. “I want them to dig deeper, get into specifics. I teach them how to write and defend a thesis … (and) look at primary sources.”

A former state History Teacher of the Year Award winner and longtime Sequim educator, Billes died Oct. 14 from pneumonia related to her cancer treatment. She was 63.

A UCLA graduate, she taught computer and music classes in Los Angeles, Calif., before taking a English teaching position with the Sequim School District in 1996.

She taught at Sequim Middle School for several years, joining fellow teacher Todd Beuke in mentoring students with National History Day projects.

History Day is a nationwide project that encourages students to dig deeply into historical subjects and get first-hand accounts of subjects often skimmed over or ignored by history books.

Sequim Middle School became a hotbed of young history experts, with dozens of youths qualifying for National History Day competitions. For her efforts, Billes was named the state History Teacher of the Year award winner by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History in 2006, and was selected as the National History Day Walt Crowley Teacher of Merit for Washington state in 2010.

“We have a school-wide culture – kids all know they’re going to do History Day,” Billes said in 2010. “I think the fact that there’s a competition inspires some kids to take the research to a level they never thought they could before.”

Former student Joseph Landoni said Billes became a well-known figure in National History Day circles.

“She really put Sequim on the map,” he said.

Billes went on to take a third-grade classroom teacher position with the Northshore School District.

She shared her diagnosis on facebook in June.

“I wanted to let everyone know that I have a somewhat rare bone marrow cancer that, without treatment, would result in my death within the next six months,” she wrote. “Fortunately, there is a possible cure. I will be undergoing chemotherapy to wipe out my immune system, and then a bone marrow transplant. Hopefully, one of my two siblings will be a match, but since the chance of that is one in four, my transplant team will need to search for what they call an unrelated matched donor. It is unlikely that any of my friends will be a match, but you could pay it forward by signing up on the bone marrow registry. You don’t have to actually donate now — only if they find a match. All you need to do is a cheek swab! Easy!”

Landoni, now a senior at Willamette University in Oregon, said he had a special connection with Billes. Both of Landoni’s parents — Joe and Pam — were teaching at Sequim Middle School during Billes’ tenure.

“I spent a ton of time at Sequim Middle School, before and after school,” Landoni recalled. “She was always there. She was the catalyst at Sequim Middle School.”

In his junior year in high school, Landoni — at Billes’ urging and her paperwork — Landoni applied for and earned a spot with the National History Day Normandy Scholars program.

“I still don’t know why she chose me over kids who went to state or nationals,” he said.

He was one of 15 youths from across the country to visit Washington, D.C., for a week to study veterans killed in action and create websites documenting veterans from their home state. Students and teachers attended lectures twice a day for several days at George Washington University and visited war memorials. The student-teacher contingent then travelled to Bayeux, France, their base for several days of visiting sites of the 1944 Normandy invasion.

More than a mentor, Landoni said, Billes impacted the youngster’s worldview in a profound way.

“Middle school was definitely not my favorite time (and) she really looked out for me, and saw that I was safe and taken care of,” Landoni said.

“She saw things in me I didn’t see in myself.”

A fundraiser has been set up for Billes and family at Friends established the site to honor Billes, an avid cyclist, by raising funds for a memorial bench along the Olympic Discovery Trail in Sequim. Extra funds will be donated to Be The Match bone marrow registry, according to the site.

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