Betty Jean Levy, who touched the lives of thousands of Vancouver students, died Wednesday. She had just turned 87.
B.J., as she was known to friends and co-workers, received national attention when she announced her retirement in 1998. She had taught for 51 years and never called in sick a single day. She only took time off for maternity leave.
That distinction earned her spots on Oprah Winfrey’s television show and NBC’s “Today” show, and a letter from baseball legend Cal Ripken Jr. At the time of her retirement, her 51 years in classrooms made her the longest-serving teacher in the state, and perhaps the nation.
Levy came to the Vancouver School District in 1946 with her husband, Robert, according to Columbian archives. He later became director of personnel at the district, which cost B.J. Levy her job to avoid a conflict of interest. Robert Levy died in 1988.
B.J. Levy started working in Portland schools when her husband was promoted. She stayed there for 17 years and then got a job in the Evergreen school district, where she stayed until her retirement. Her last classroom was at Burnt Bridge Creek Elementary School. Except for her first year in Vancouver, when she taught first grade, Levy gave kindergartners their start in school for her entire career.
More than 300 people attended Levy’s retirement party in 1998, according to a Columbian story at the time.
Walking around Vancouver with his mom could be slow going, her son Dirk said with a quiet laugh. Former students would constantly stop her on the street.
“You’d always hear, ‘I had you as a kindergarten teacher,'” Dirk Levy said. “And these were 40-year-old adults.”
Along with her dedication and experience, Levy’s artistic classroom methods may have added to her being so memorable.
“Music was a huge part of her life,” Dirk Levy said.
A 1998 story in The Columbian portrayed her teaching methods, which included learning through song long before academic research showed the value of such methods. She taught herself to play the piano
at a young age and never lost her love for the instrument.
After her retirement, B.J. Levy added another title to her impressive résumé: world traveler.
Together with lifelong friend Colleen Buck of Vancouver, Levy toured through South America, Asia, Europe and the Middle East. Sometimes the two were part of an organized tour group or a cruise. But other times the two retirees just flew to a place and set out on their own.
Levy stayed fit mentally and physically after her retirement, through visits to the athletic club and bridge games with friends, her son said.
But her health deteriorated in the last few years, as progressive Parkinson’s disease gripped the octogenarian.
Her family, especially Peggy Levy, the wife of Dirk’s brother Derek, was committed to having B.J. Levy remain at the home where she had lived most of her life, Dirk Levy said.
“They’ve been wonderful (in) taking care of her,” he said.
B.J. Levy died in her own bed, surrounded by family.
A memorial service is scheduled for 1 p.m. Tuesday at the First Presbyterian Church at 4300 Main St. in Vancouver.