Legacy of UW coach’s wife still going strong

dave.boling@thenewstribune.comFebruary 10, 2013 

A year has passed since his wife, Jean, died, and Pat Licari still is cautious when trying to compress the memories into stories, or the feelings into words.

There are no timetables for recovery from such things, like those on which coaches sometimes rely: six weeks for a sprained ankle, a month for a pulled hamstring, etc.

Perhaps it takes a lifetime to cope with the loss of a vibrant and healthy 45-year-old wife – a mother of two, who wasn’t just a coach and educator at Federal Way High School, but an academic innovator whose programs elevated the life trajectory of countless students.

So Pat Licari is more comfortable coaching his University of Washington athletes on ways to take a springy stick and jump over a lofty bar than he is at examining the stages of grief and emotional healing.

His method has been to embrace the comfort and distraction of work, and to try as much as possible to shift his focus from that which had been lost to that which remains: Daughters Katelin (16) and Madison (13).

“Jean was always very positive and optimistic, and the girls are the same way; a reflection of her … really tough and strong,” Licari says. “My girls have been able to handle things and are doing so well. I see a lot of their mom in them … especially in their strength.”

And of his own recovery? “I’m continuing to figure things out,” the 44-year-old Licari says.

Licari is a local success story: State pole vault champ at Sumner High, vaulter at Washington State and coach of UW athletes who have won six NCAA championships and 40 All-America honors.

He schools jumpers and multi-event athletes, too, but he’s internationally respected for his work with vaulters. The pole vault

is a daring thrill ride, a test of speed and strength and fearlessness, making it a combination of track and field and Cirque du Soleil.

His most decorated pupil is Brad Walker, a two-time Olympian and holder of the American record at 19-feet-93/4 inches, which is, basically, like jumping over a two-story building.

“Pat’s a really likable, easygoing guy who is always so happy to be coaching, and has such high energy with his athletes,” says Walker, who finished at UW in 2004. “I’ve worked with or talked to all the coaches in the world, and Pat’s technical models are the best there are.”

Walker was expecting Licari at the Reno Pole Vault Summit in January 2012 – a competition, clinic and annual caucus for the cult of vaulters – but he did not know how dire Jean’s health situation was. Walker cleared 19 feet at the event, and dedicated the effort to Jean Licari.

“Pat’s usually one to keep his cards close to his chest,” Walker says. “My heart went out to him and his family – what a great family, what great people they are.”

Bill Harris, track coach at Federal Way High, remembers hiring a young woman who had been a middle-distance runner at the University of Idaho 22 years ago. “From the beginning, she was such a caring teacher and coach,” Harris says. “She was such an exuberant teacher and outgoing woman who really met the needs of the kids.”

Jean Licari coached track and cross country, and taught math. And along with colleague Heather Wren, she initiated a program called the “Academic Success Academy.” The program carried strict guidelines, but provided at-risk students a last chance to make up lost credits and graduate on time.

“It was something she started because the drop-out rate is so high,” Federal Way principal Lisa Griebel says. “She was a pioneer – basically she was saying, ‘I am just not going to let kids drop out.’ ”

Even with their heavy schedules, Pat and Jean ran and played volleyball together. But Jean began tiring and growing short of breath in 2011. What doctors thought was a blood clot near her heart turned out to be leiomyosarcoma, a rare and aggressive cancer that ultimately spread to her brain.

She died Jan. 8, 2012.

“She is irreplaceable,” Griebel says. “The loss hasn’t healed; it’s still really close to the surface.”

Griebel says she was approached by a track coach from another school recently who told her “how much the loss impacted him, and how it caused him to make changes in his own life.”

And she recalls a former student speaking at Jean’s memorial service. He had been one of those at risk of flunking out, but he’s now working toward a teaching certificate.

“That’s all due to Jean changing his path,” Griebel says. “She wasn’t just making a difference in the lives of kids at the time, but doing things that will have a ripple effect for years to come.”

Maybe that’s the take away from the story of Pat and Jean Licari, that teaching and coaching, when done with the right amount of passion and skill, bestow a kind of immortality.

And maybe it doesn’t matter if the lessons are in mathematics, life skills or how to ride a bendy pole to outlandish heights and still be able to fall gracefully back to earth – it’s all about challenging people to raise their own bar.

Griebel recalls her last meeting at school with Jean Licari, who had grown frighteningly weak.

“She was so sick, but she would not stop working,” Griebel says. “She told me that she didn’t want to stop because she was afraid people would stop thinking of her. I told her, no, that could never happen.”

Griebel collects herself at the memory before adding: “And it hasn’t.”

Dave Boling: 253-597-8440 dave.boling@thenewstribune.com @DaveBoling

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