'A part of Western' leaves after 42 years

Friday, Jan. 11, will be a big day in the life of Teresa LaFreniere. It’s the day that hordes of her family and friends from Western Washington University will wish her well as she leaves her beloved workplace of 42 years.

But LaFreniere has had plenty of big days. Take Tuesday, May 18, 1965, for instance. That’s the day she was hired to work full-time as assistant to the chair of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Western.

That day began a lifelong love affair with Western, a place LaFreniere says is now is inked indelibly on her soul. LaFreniere would later work for the Bureau for Faculty Research, the Office of Student Life, the Multicultural Service Center, Counseling and Health Services and the Huxley College of the Environment dean’s office, where she’s been since 1992.

“Western came before marriage, before children,” LaFreniere says, her voice breaking with emotion. “Western was always a part of me, and I was a part of Western.”

While a WWU employee, LaFreniere also spent time as a student, earning both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Western.

“I took one or two classes a quarter for a long, long time,” she says. “I always wanted to be a Western grad. I was always proud to be associated with Western.”

To LaFreniere, then and now, Western represents a place of learning, both for her and for the thousands of other students who’ve come and gone through campus.

“It’s a place of ideas and philosophies and what-ifs,” she says. “Students are growing, learning, developing and making a better sense of the world around them.”

In the beginning, her plan had never been to make her career in Bellingham. She grew up in this sleepy town, and her feet were itching to hit the pavement.

She had just earned high scores on a federal test for office work, and she was single. At 21 years old, she looked out at a world full of opportunity and told herself she’d get away at least to Seattle or Alaska.

But then she was hired part-time by sociology and anthropology professor Angelo Anastasio to type up the proceedings from a conference he’d attended in Chicago with fellow professor Herb Taylor. After a few short weeks, two different departments—Athletics and Anastasio’s Sociology—offered her full-time work.

She couldn’t say no.

“I came in a moment from pledging to leave Bellingham to saying, ‘Yes, I’ll stay.’ It was spontaneous,” LaFreniere said.

Stay she did. And boy, did she love it.

Her combined affection for students and education soon had her doling out advice to the undergraduates who passed through the Sociology/Anthropology Department—the same department through which LaFreniere herself later earned that undergraduate degree.

“It was incredibly rewarding,” she says, emotion obvious in her voice. “I learned a lot, and they learned a lot. They were so grateful. I felt I was helping them get through the myriad of information they needed to graduate.”

Decades after they’d graduated, students still were returning to thank LaFreniere for her help.

One summer day 10 years ago, a commercial airline pilot dropped by.

“He said, ‘I always wanted to tell you that you were so helpful to me’,” LaFreniere says.

LaFreniere helped a lot of people during her four-plus decades at Western.

Bradley Smith, the Huxley dean, says he already misses LaFreniere can-do attitude.

“It was always a pleasure to come to work and see Teresa’s smile and feel the warmth of her personality,” he said. “I will miss her greatly.”

Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2007—just a few weeks ago—was another big day for LaFreniere. That was the day that Dr. Gregory Foltz, a neurosurgeon at Swedish Medical Center in Seattle, removed a tumor from her brain.

The surgery went well, and LaFreniere is going through chemotherapy and radiation treatment now to kill the few cancerous cells that remain.

LaFreniere already was planning to retire from Western to seek other work before the tumor was discovered, said Gina Weigum, the eldest of LaFreniere’s two daughters. Her last day was supposed to have been Dec. 31. But if the cancer did alter her plans a bit, it certainly didn’t completely change them.

“Sickness wasn’t part of the plan. Her passion is in education, and she isn’t and wasn’t really ready to slow down,” Weigum says. “But right now, her job is going to be to get well and stay well. Once my mom’s in a healthy place, there’s different educational ideas that she’ll pursue.”

Whatever the particulars of her next job, it’s a safe bet to say that it’ll have something to do with learning—and with helping others to learn.

“I definitely want it to be something I feel good about,” LaFreniere says. “It was always my internal thing to help others.”

That desire to help others is what led her to Swedish for the surgery. When she found out about the tumor, LaFreniere was adamant that it should be removed by someone who’d be willing to use the tumor for research, not just remove it and forget it.

“My mom said, ‘I want this tumor studied’,” Weigum said.

LaFreniere’s hope is that someday, the tumor that gave her so much trouble will help a doctor such as Foltz discover a cure for cancer.

That, perhaps, would be Teresa’s biggest day yet.