The Warriors grieve after a noble battle

Friday, May 24, 2019
lta-Aurelia High School mourned the loss of beloved long-time teacher and coach Billy Joe “BJ” Stevicks on Monday. Stevicks died last Thursday after a battle of several months with pancreatic cancer. /Photos by Elijah Decious

Alta-Aurelia High School and the community celebrated the life of beloved teacher and coach BJ Stevicks after a battle with pancreatic cancer—one the school showed up for in full force.

“It’s been a long day without you, my friend,” sang the student choir in remembrance of Stevicks, “and I’ll tell you all about it when I see you again.”

It was a point of emotion that broke a levy of tears for some mourners after minutes of silence in the gymnasium, where a pin drop could have been heard among approximately 300 attendees.

The high school choir sang See You Again, with emotional lyrics for a memorial service. “It’s been a long time without you my friend, and I’ll tell you all about it when I see you again.”

It was the same gym where just a day earlier, air horns celebrated the graduation of students—education in which BJ no doubt played a role.

‘His eyes would light up talking about the students he taught,” said Pastor Henry Kuhn in his homily, saying the 27-year teacher loved the children and was effective in ways that could make wonderful things happen in education.

The die-hard Huskers fan, whose Huskers-painted urn was centered among floral arrangements Sunday, also coached high school wrestling, middle school football, softball and girls basketball.

“What do you teach?” his friend, fellow teacher Steven Reuter asked him once.

“I teach kids,” he replied.

It was “the mark of a good teacher,” his friend said, in building the kind of relationships few other teachers did.

“When you were in front of him, he made you feel like the most important person in the world,” Reuter said.

BJ will be remembered for his quirky quips, a few of which friends may remember, such as: “Patience comes to those who wait,” “I’m dizzier than a two-legged cat in a sandbox,” and “She could start an argument in an empty house.”

An outpouring of support on a snowy February day this year brought warmth to their family’s hearts.

“We knew we had a great town here, but we just had no idea (how great) until something like this happened,” said his wife, Sue, at the fundraiser.

T-shirts from organizers read, “his fight is our fight.” Likewise in loss, they mourned together Monday.

“As an educator, we never really realize how many lives we touch,” said Principal Tom Ryherd in February. “This is a tribute to what he’s done for everybody over the years and didn’t even think twice about—he just did it.”

And on that Sunday, BJ was the same character everyone had known for decades, enthusiastically sharing a personal smile, laugh or hug with every person who came through the line to talk to him. Even through the face mask he wore, with a face unrecognizably gaunt compared to the face on the memorial service’s bulletin, his smile radiated.

Eulogies all pointed to the understanding that it was just BJ’s mark of character to show such enthusiasm and gratitude as a man facing a 9 percent five-year survival rate.

A former student remarked in her eulogy how the teacher always made sure she was smiling in the hallways.

“It’s just overwhelming. My emotions are just high and low, high and low,” BJ told the Pilot-Tribune that day as he took in the inundating support that flooded Alta Elementary’s cafeteria. “It is unbelievable.”

He took an early retirement to fight the battle, going to Omaha for treatment.

“He’s had a big influence on a number of kids’ lives,” said Superintendent Lynn Evans. “Industrial art teachers and home economics teachers and art teachers—they reach a completely different audience than traditional teachers. He has a way with those kids that draws them to take those classes, and he has a heart for them.”

“He just made learning fun,” said Elizabeth Peterson in February, an elementary art teacher in the district who had Stevicks as a social studies teacher in the late 90s. “He was one of the first teachers to have us doing video projects. I remember him just loving his job and always saying teaching was what he loved to do. He always had a smile.”

BJ will likely be remembered not only for his love of campfires, but also for the spark he fanned in each student and person that knew him.