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Beloved Federal Way teacher, coach, pastor passes away after battle with cancer

Sean Smith. Courtesy of Facebook -
Sean Smith. Courtesy of Facebook
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After battling cancer for more than a year, Sean Smith passed away surrounded by his family on the night of Sunday, March 13.

It was 15 months to the day from when he was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer, a deadly disease with a 1 percent five-year survival rate.

But in his 50 years of life, the teacher, coach, youth pastor, family man and Federal Way community member touched thousands of lives with the positivity and kindness he shared with everyone he met.

"Sean just had a real gift and genuine love for people, especially young people – inspiring them to be everything that they could be, to live a life with integrity," said his wife of 27 years, Tami Smith.

After Sean Smith was diagnosed in December 2014, his large network of friends and family members pulled together to set up a bank account called the Sean Smith Beneficial Trust with Bank of America.

The trust is active once more to help after his passing.

Th community also held an auction to help raise money for his treatments last March, and former students from his days as a youth pastor rallied funds again last October.

Tami Smith said her husband took a five-month break from chemotherapy in June after responding "very well" to it, but his initial symptoms returned in December 2015. It was then that the entire family decided to take a trip to Hawaii over the holidays.

Shortly after they returned, he struggled. Sean Smith would undergo three surgeries, fighting a blood infection and other symptoms with his GI tract in just two months. By early March, doctors told him he was too weak to continue chemotherapy and he came home on hospice shortly after.

Father, husband, son, friend

"We're all just kind of holding each other up because Sean would want that," said Sean Smith's sister, Michelle Theiss, who is in town from California.

Sean was born in Bellingham on Feb. 14, 1966, to Mary (Gena) Smith, 71, and Boyd Smith, 73. He attended Federal Way Public Schools, graduating from Decatur High School in 1984.

Theiss said her big brother struggled in school despite his intelligence because he had dyslexia, and "nobody knew what that was back in the 1980s."

While Theiss is devastated by the loss of her brother, she is especially heartbroken for his high school sweetheart.

"I met him in 1983 at Decatur High School," Tami Smith said. "I had just moved here from Spokane."

The two had been at a basketball game together with mutual friends, and she recalled him coming up to the group pointing to various girls he was going to dance with at school dance that night. When he got to her, he told her how he was going to "dance with [her] a lot."

Five years later, the couple was married. Their sons, Joshua Smith, 24, and Spencer Smith, 21, were born years later.

Theiss remarked how great it was that she and Tami Smith were friends, and Theiss' husband, whom she would marry 10 years later, was a friend of Sean Smith's. The couples lived near each other for seven years, raising their children together.

"My husband, Brad Theiss, a lifelong friend of Sean's, and my girls Madi and Allie were blessed to be Sean's neighbor for a number of years when our kids were little," she said, adding that her husband will sing at the memorial service. "Our hearts are broken, as we will miss his infectious laugh and smile."

Friend Jennifer Buckholz also met Sean Smith in high school, which led to a 35-year friendship that would see them graduate together and get married and have children at around the same time.

"The one thing about Sean is that he doesn't throw friendship away," Buckholz said. "He collects them like precious jewels."

Buckholz and Ali Hart, a friend of eight years, started the Smith Strong Beneficial Trust, which Buckholz said is still getting donations from many people.

"It's just an amazing testimony to who he was as a person," she said.

With the knowledge that his survival rate was so low, the Smith family spent the last year spending as much time together as they could. Not only did they got to Hawaii, but Tami Smith said they spent time restoring a cabin built in 1960 on family property at Mason Lake. Although Tami Smith is sad her husband never got to see the end result, a huge group of friends finished the restoration at the end of last year for him.

In the days before he died, Tami Smith called their closest friends and let them know he was declining rapidly.

"I told him on Sunday in the middle of the night – I was sleeping with him, and I told him he had been an amazing husband, a wonderful father and we were going to be OK and it was OK for him to go," Tami Smith said in tears. "He had done so much for so many people and he just really loved life."

Decatur teacher

Sean Smith studied at the Oregon Institute of Technology, Seattle University and the University of Colorado, and was an engineering technician before he would return to the place it had all started – his high school alma mater.

Federal Way Public Schools spokeswoman Kassie Swenson said Sean Smith started teaching at Decatur nine years ago but was a coach for much longer.

Nancy Hawkins, the former Federal Way Public Schools director of career and technical education, had been looking for a teacher to start an ambitious program at Decatur High School. However, Project Lead the Way, a national program with an emphasis on pre-engineering education, almost didn't happen.

"We came within two weeks of pulling the plug on the whole thing," she said.

But then Hawkins met Sean Smith.

"He's this positive kind of guy who basically says yes to anything," she said, adding that he often said, "I'll do whatever it takes."

Sean Smith helped build the pre-engineering program at Decatur from the ground up, taking courses in teaching during summer breaks and being open to new ideas – one of which led his students to apply for a patent.

The patent was for a device called the "active shooter project," which was prompted by news of school shootings. Decatur's interior classroom doors were especially dangerous in this situation because they required teachers to go into the hallway and lock them from the outside. Seniors developed a $5 door locking mechanism that fixed the problem.

Sarah Vanhoy's daughter, Maranda McGeough, was one of the students who worked on that project.

"My daughter is going to college for engineering because of him," Vanhoy said, adding that her daughter has received the American Association of the University of Women Award for her work in engineering and technology.

And it wasn't just her daughter who was affected by Sean Smith.

"I had my daughter when I was 15, and a lot of teachers treated me different, like I wasn't like the other parents," Vanhoy said, noting that teachers would often try to over-explain things to her. "He didn't treat me different than the other parents. He talked to me the same."

Vanhoy said he was a "one-of-a-kind man" and inspired "so many" kids in his life.

"No matter what you looked like, dressed like, he treated you the same," she said. "He genuinely cared… Without him, my daughter wouldn't have gone to school for engineering. He told her, 'You've got such a good brain. You have to go.'"

Former student Balin Lusby called Sean Smith his "engineering mentor."

"I had always looked forward to the day when I could come back and thank him and show him my bachelor's degree," Lusby said. "Sadly, that will never happen."

Lusby said that after excelling in his pre-engineering class for two years, he began Running Start but returned to Decatur to tutor other students.

"I am so thankful his support, his patience and his respect for me," he said. "He was a great teacher and mentor and has inspired me to keep a giving attitude, to share my knowledge and my tools with other growing engineers, and to always produce the highest quality of work I am capable of while helping others along the way."

Tyler Dean, a senior at Decatur, began Sean Smith's engineering course as a freshman and has served as his teacher's assistant since his sophomore year. Dean said he was fascinated by Sean Smith's work as a youth pastor and said he grew closer to his teacher each year they knew each other.

"I literally sat next to him every day," Dean wrote in an email. "As we talked about everything, if I had nothing to talk about, he would have me open my bible so that we could have something to talk about. Mr. Smith was one of my best friends, he was my role model."

Swenson said Sean Smith continued teaching after his diagnosis, coming in when he could. He remained in the classroom until February of this year.

"I have heard so many positive comments about Sean's commitment to our student-scholars at Decatur," said Superintendent Dr. Tammy Campbell. "His impact will live on in the good work of the student-scholars he taught and touched over his 20-plus years at Decatur. My heart goes out to his family."

Hawkins said she's worked with a lot of teachers in her 45 years in education, but "Sean was among the very best teachers" she's ever known.

"Sean Smith has been a vital part of the Decatur community," said Decatur Principal David Brower. "As a distinguished alumnus, coach and educator, he has inspired thousands of kids over the last 20 years."

Coach Smith

The Gators coach helped with many sports but was most influential as Decatur's head boys soccer coach, a title he held until he was diagnosed last year. However, he maintained his status as assistant wrestling coach through the current school year's season. Sean Smith also helped coach football at Decatur and Lakota Middle School on and off throughout the past 20 years.

"Sean was a man of great faith, and it carried over into the way he approached coaching and mentoring student athletes," said Korey Sites, the athletics director at Decatur. "He believed in each and every kid and could communicate that clearly to them."

Sites said sometimes he told student athletes life lessons, but often it "was with his smile and distinctive laugh."

With every setback in competitive sports, Sites said Sean Smith encouraged his team to be resilient and persist, "much as he did during his fight with cancer."

"Coach Smith was a strong advocate for whatever he believed in and could be extremely competitive," Sites said, noting that he'll miss him for his wisdom and optimism. "He fought for his teams and put an immense amount of time and energy into coaching."

Man of God

Pastor Billy Arnold met Sean and Tami Smith 25 years ago after they began attending LifeWay Church in Federal Way.

He said they were newlyweds who had "popped in one day" in the spring of 1990. The two became involved in the church right away. One thing led to another, and Sean Smith found himself on church staff as a youth pastor in 1993.

"He made a real commitment," Arnold said. "He was born into a home of faith."

But he "made his faith a reality" in his young 20s.

"At that point forward, it really changed everything of what his life was all about," Arnold said. "His life was dictated by calling."

As a youth pastor for 16 years, he lifted up God's grace to teens in the church and helped them himself when he could.

One such youth was well-known Decatur High School student Dominque "Dom" Cooks, who passed away from a brain tumor in April 2014.

In a previous article in the Mirror, Sean Smith said going through cancer made him think back to Cooks, a 220-pound defensive lineman he coached, and the journey he went through.

"I remember when Cookie (Cooks) spoke at the ceremony he said he was thankful for his friends and he was thankful for the cancer because it reminded him that life was short," Smith said in the article. "He said getting diagnosed showed him who his friends are and that they are here in the halls of Decatur. That's exactly how I feel now."

Arnold was with the Smith family the night of his death, and the pastor recalled hearing him tell his niece that he wasn't afraid to die and that he had "confidence in eternity of heaven."

It's a conversation Arnold has had with Sean Smith multiple times since he was first diagnosed.

"He was a cheerful guy," Arnold said. "Like anybody that makes an impact on people, I'll miss him like I'll miss a friend."

Arnold said God allowed Sean Smith to have a big impact as a mentor, teacher, pastor, coach and family man.

"That part is what raises not his personal value to God but his personal value within the city," he said. "He really was an outstanding citizen in the community, he really was. I think that's what we'll miss."

Sean Smith's memorial will be held at 1 p.m. on Sunday, March 20, at Decatur High School (2800 SW 320th St.) in the gymnasium. It is open to the public.

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