SEQUIM — Sandy Smith, a woman known for her fierce belief in human potential, died Dec. 17 of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. She was 61.
Ms. Smith taught for nearly four decades in the Sequim School District, finishing her career at the Sequim Alternative School for teens who have opted out of the mainstream high school.
She retired in June 2008, 14 months after receiving the diagnosis of ALS, a disorder that destroys nerve cells in the spinal cord and brain.
As an environmental science and Career Choices teacher, Ms. Smith gave her students nothing less than devotion, said Patra Boots, principal of the alternative school during Ms. Smith’s tenure there.
“She believed any kid could learn,” Boots said. “It was a whole attitude: She didn’t approach it as, ‘You had your chance and you blew it.’ Her approach was, ‘You’re ready now; let’s go forward.'”
In March 2008, Ms. Smith won the high school educator of the year award from the Washington Alternative Learning Association.
In accepting the honor, she emphasized her love of the life she had chosen.
“I have had the pleasure of teaching three generations of students,” she told her colleagues, who gave her a standing ovation at a school board meeting.
Reason for graduating
“Miss Smith was the reason I graduated from high school,” Tony Bush, a former student, wrote to the state alternative learning association.
“She sees the good and the potential in students, never giving up . . . and never allowing them to give up on themselves.”
Ms. Smith taught at the alternative school from 1999 until her retirement last year. Prior to that she taught special education and other subjects at Sequim High and Sequim Middle School; she held a Ph.D. in learning disabilities as well as degrees in education, French and Spanish.
Friends also remember Ms. Smith as a tough, independent woman who reveled in the outdoors.
She lived outside Quilcene in a cabin off Snow Creek Road near Lake Leland, harnessed solar energy to power her computers and took epic hikes into the Olympic Mountains.
“She was as comfortable with a chainsaw as she was with a laptop,” said Annette Hanson, a friend and colleague at the Sequim School District.
“She could have been a backcountry woman 100 years ago,” roaming the ridges as she did — except she carried her notebook computer on hikes.
After a full day at school, Ms. Smith was known for going home to chop wood on her property, load it into her old pickup truck and deliver it to buyers, said Jo Chinn, another friend and retired Sequim Middle School librarian.
Kathy Strozyk, a frequent travel companion, went on one of Ms. Smith’s last big trips: to New Orleans for Mardi Gras in February.
“That was the first time she got into a wheelchair,” Strozyk said. “She really wanted to go; I said, ‘I’m game.'”
Strozyk has some good pictures of her friend happily weighted down with a mass of Mardi Gras beads.
Above all, Ms. Smith found joy in her students.
The stone to be placed on her grave, Strozyk said, will read simply, “I taught.”
“That was her life, until the end,” said Strozyk, adding that Ms. Smith enthusiastically helped one of her caregivers, a high school student, with his schoolwork.
One of the last things Ms. Smith wanted to do was send out her Christmas cards, along with a goodbye letter. So Strozyk got the 55 missives stamped and mailed a few days before the writer died.
Hanson remembered, too, how in the classroom, this teacher “had the patience of Job. She had the patience to wait until she really connected with the student.”
“She was just so accepting. She just always believed the kids had things they could do, and she built on that,” Chinn added.
“She saw beyond anything that hampered a kid from learning in the traditional way.”
Ms. Smith showed her toughness even when driving to work, Chinn said. She could have taken the route around Lake Leland, but instead “she drove over the mountains.”
And in her 38 years teaching in Sequim, she missed exactly one day of work, according to Hanson, the district’s resources and information specialist.
Another quality that set Ms. Smith apart, Boots said, was how comfortable she was with herself and her offbeat approach to life.
As a result, “the people whose lives she touched became more tolerant of how everyone looks at things differently, approaches things differently.”
She also “proved to kids that they didn’t have to accept barriers,” in the classroom or in the wider world, Boots added.
When teaching, Ms. Smith “was always willing to try multiple approaches. She never looked at something as hopeless.”
“She had a very rich life,” Boots said. “We could all take a page out of her book, as far as what you can do,” as an educator and as a student.
A memorial service celebrating Ms. Smith’s life will be held in January, though a date has not yet been set. She is survived by her mother, Helen M. Smith of Quilcene, and by many other family members and friends.
________Sequim-Dungeness Valley Reporter Diane Urbani de la Paz can be reached at 360-681-2391 or at diane.urbani@peninsuladaily news.com.