If anyone out there is thinking about crying, don’t. Kathy Bluethman would prefer a smile.
“Anyone who is mourning Kathy doesn’t get it,” Bluethman’s longtime friend and local coach Dan McLaughlin said. “Who’d be the most upset? Don’t mourn. Celebrate the fact that we got to spend time with probably the most remarkable person we will ever meet.”
Bluethman, Whittell’s athletic director and former South Tahoe coach and teacher, died at home May 29 after a two-year battle with breast cancer.
“Tahoe lost its biggest angel,” said Chris McCarthy, Bluethman’s partner.
But in true Bluethman fashion, an outside celebration will be held instead of a memorial service. The celebration of Bluethman’s life and her dedication to Whittell and South Tahoe students will begin Saturday at 10 a.m. at the Whittell High School football field, rain or shine.
The celebration is expected to last about an hour. Attendees are encouraged to carpool and wear comfortable shoes as parking will be limited. Sun protection, water bottles, lawn chairs or towels and blankets to sit on are also recommended. Everyone is encouraged to wear pink — Bluethman’s favorite color.
Bluethman, who coached at South Tahoe for more than a decade and served as athletic director at Whittell for the past four years, was one of the biggest advocates of South Shore student athletics. In lieu of flowers, her friends and family have requested that service attendees make a small donation to the George Whittell athletic department.
Whittell is where this story ends, but South Tahoe is where it starts.
A Viking start
Bluethman laid down her athletic roots as a Viking. She attended Tahoe Valley Elementary School, South Tahoe Middle School and South Tahoe High School, where she played volleyball and was a cheerleader for the basketball team.
She was a good volleyball player — part of a winning team — although she was actually only 5-foot-9 at the time. Probably much to the disappointment of her high school coach, Bluethman didn’t hit the 6-foot mark until her freshman year of college.
“She had this volleyball jacket and, when she came home from her first year in college, she couldn’t even put it on. It wouldn’t go across her shoulders,” said Bluethman’s mom, Val Naify, who laughed at the memory.
Bluethman graduated from South Tahoe in 1981, and moved to San Diego to attend Mesa Junior College and eventually San Diego State. During her time at San Diego State, Bluethman picked up more than just a love for the Chargers and Padres. She also picked up the skills to become a top triathlete back when the sport was just taking off.
Naify followed her daughter to triathlons across the world. From South Carolina to Baja, Mexico, to swimming part of the Sacramento River, Naify watched her daughter become an accomplished triathlete. She also listened while Bluethman talked about her dreams of becoming a teacher.
“I think she felt that she could make a difference,” Naify said, “and she did make a big difference in many people’s lives because she would just encourage them. She told people they could do it, and she did it with love, and that’s really the only way I can explain it.”
Bluethman graduated from San Diego State with a teaching credential and returned home to share her passion for athletics and the outdoors with the Tahoe youth. She accepted her first gig at South Tahoe Middle School, where she coached volleyball.
Shorty after, she was hired as the track and cross-country coach at South Tahoe High School where she also taught physical education classes.
The year was 1999, and Kendra Terry was registered for a freshman physical education class at South Tahoe High School. The class could have been just another one of those high school requirements. A check on the old requisite list, but Bluethman was teaching her class. Terry’s life, like so many of Bluethman’s students, would never be the same.
“She just brought the life out of everybody and had a huge impact on me,” Terry said. “We really bonded through high school. By the time I graduated she had pretty much adopted me as her daughter.”
During her senior year, Terry signed up for Bluethman’s cross-country team. She wanted to prepare for the softball season, but quickly decided cross-country was a bad decision.
“My first race that I ran at Galena High School was three miles, and by the time I finished my race I told her, ‘I never want to do that ever again,’” Terry said. “On the bus ride home, she sat down right next to me, looked me in the eyes and said ‘You’re not a quitter. I know it was hard. I know it was not pleasurable, but you’re not a quitter. You don’t quit’.”
Terry stuck it out that season, learning a more valuable lesson than during those long miles. Bluethman had a way of doing that.
“She doesn’t have any children, but she really didn’t want any. She said, ‘I have enough of them’,” Naify said. “She really loved what she was doing, and what a lucky person to love what she did.”
No matter how many times Bluethman left Tahoe, she always ended up coming back. She moved to Texas for two years, but returned to Gardnerville and started substitute teaching at Whittell.
Right about that same time, almost five years ago to the day, Bluethman almost died.
It was early in the morning, about 7 a.m., and Bluethman was coming down Kingsbury Grade on her motorcycle. A truck cut in front of her to turn left. Bluethman locked up her brakes and likely went over the handlebars.
She was air lifted to Renown Regional Medical Center, in Reno, where she was in a coma in the Intensive Care Unit for almost three weeks. She didn’t break a bone in her body, but doctors were uncertain whether she would survive a traumatic head injury. If she did survive, it was unclear whether she would have permanent brain damage.
When Bluethman woke up from the coma, they transferred her to the neurological clinic, where she was in rehab for another three weeks. She had lost a lot of her memory, but Bluethman was a survivor.
“What I realize now is how strong Kathy’s battles were and how hard she fought,” McCarthy said. “And the thing that I learned most from Kathy is not to sweat the little things.”
Bluethman had beat the odds. She started building back her memory.
“We kind of figure we got a five-year bonus of having her,” Naify said.
As soon as she was healthy enough, Bluethman was back to teaching. Changing lives seemed more crucial than ever.
“When she got back she decided she was really going to step up her role of working with kids and making them feel positive about life, and you know what I noticed is that she was the exact same person she was before,” McLaughlin said. “Kathy was always that way. She had a natural infectious personality that made everyone around her feel good about themselves, and realize that there is no such thing as a bad day.”
And around Bluethman there weren’t any bad days. She just didn’t sweat the small stuff. There was always time to listen and problems could always be solved with a smile.
“The times that I spent with her in this last year and a half have been wonderful,” Naify said. “We’ve had some good times, and I’ve got some good memories. We played Gin Rummy together and toward the end she beat the pants off me. Those are the things I want to remember.”
She started as a Viking, but there is no doubt Bluethman had Warrior Pride.
It was her dedication to Whittell that kept her going when she was diagnosed with breast cancer two years ago, and then again diagnosed last fall after beating the cancer once.
Through it all, Bluethman refused to take time off.
“You know what, they’re my kids,” Bluethman said in October when asked why she didn’t take time off. “When I’m at work, I don’t think about my illness. I think about the work I can do. How can I help the kids do better in classes? Make sure they’re doing well in their sports, and if they get in trouble they can come see me.”
It only takes one hand to count how many games Bluethman missed in her four years as Whittell’s athletic director. She continued to attend all the athletic events until the end. Whittell hosted the state golf championships in mid-May, and there was Bluethman driving a golf cart around and rooting for her students.
She was a champion of her students’ successes, a life tutor of all ages, a counselor to students who needed someone to talk to, and most of all, an inspiration to all.
“She never stopped believing. If she’s dying and she never stops believing then what the hell are we doing if we ever stop believing?” McLaughlin said. “We don’t do her memory justice if we don’t continue to believe. That’s the way we need to honor her memory.”
“I think she felt that she could make a difference, and she did make a big difference in many people’s lives because she would just encourage them. She told people they could do it, and she did it with love, and that’s really the only way I can explain it.”
Kathy Bluethman’s mom