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Billings Says She Won’t Let Aids Derail Her ‘Life Was Never Meant To Be Lived Through Fear’

Lynda V. Mapes Staff writer

Denied a child of her own by two miscarriages, tormented by an enraged former employee and now diagnosed with AIDS, Washington state schools chief Judith Billings said self-pity is nonetheless the last thing on her mind.

“I don’t think I’ve wondered, ‘Why me?’ One could say, ‘Why not me?”’ Billings said, confirming her illness in an emotional news conference Tuesday.

Flanked by her parents and her husband, Donald, Billings said she learned last March she was infected with the AIDS virus.

A doctor suggested an AIDS test following a puzzling string of ailments. Billings, married for 23 years, said she thought, “That’s about the craziest thing I ever heard of, but he’s the doctor.”

When the test came back positive, she determined she got the virus 15 years ago while undergoing artificial insemination with infected donor sperm.

Her husband is not infected.

Billings, 56, underwent artificial insemination because she wanted a child and her husband previously had had a vasectomy that couldn’t be reversed.

She became pregnant twice, but both pregnancies ended in miscarriage.

Billings is in her eighth year as state superintendent of public instruction.

The couple’s four children from Donald Billings’ previous marriage sat behind her during Tuesday’s news conference, some weeping, some holding hands.

Smartly dressed and looking the picture of health, Billings said she feels fine and promised to give her all to her job.

“I am certainly not going to allow what is possible tomorrow to sidetrack me, derail me, depress me or defeat me in any way today,” she said. “Life was never meant to be lived through fear.”

But she will not run for another term as schools superintendent.

She always intended to serve only two four-year terms, Billings said. Seeking a fresh challenge, she is mulling a run for Congress in the 9th District, challenging incumbent Randy Tate.

Billings said her determination to make a difference has only increased now that she knows she has AIDS, an incurable disease.

“If anything, my interest in continuing to serve in the public arena has increased because of my health condition. I see it as an opportunity to educate the young and the old, people of all persuasions.”

Her belief in God and the support of her family have kept her strong, Billings said, reaching for her mother’s hand.

Donald Billings called the diagnosis “pretty devastating.”

“I had a really hard time with it,” he said. “I’m not sure I gave a lot of support. Not like I wanted to.”

He has helped his wife in difficult times before. For more than a year, beginning in July 1993, Judith Billings received death threats and obscene notes from an angry former employee.

The employee was convicted of felony harassment last November.

During the harassment, Donald Billings feared for his wife’s life every day. Now, as she battles AIDS, his feelings are divided about her running for Congress.

“I want her to do what makes her happy… but it’s really hard. I hate to see her go anywhere.”

The news shocked state government leaders and the education community.

“I almost drove off the road,” said Karen Davis, top lobbyist for the state teacher’s union, who heard about Billings on the radio while driving to work.

“I was stunned,” said Gov. Mike Lowry, who Billings told about her illness one hour before Tuesday’s press conference. Like many, the governor said the news put his own day-to-day troubles in perspective.

“It just goes to show how small the things we worry about really are,” he said. “It’s just usually our own ego we are worrying about.”

Billings said she kept her illness secret until she felt ready to discuss it on her own terms. “I wanted time to think about it and time to be with my family, to pull in that strength and support.”

After her diagnosis, she contracted pneumocystis carinii pneumonia - one of the diseases that prey on people whose immune systems are weakened by HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

Her T-cell count dropped below 200, an indicator that HIV has become AIDS. T-cells are the white blood cells that fight infection. A healthy count is about 1,000 per milliliter of blood.

Billings knocked down the pneumocystis and her T-cell count now is comfortably above 200.

By announcing that she will not run again, Billings said she hopes more candidates will run for her job. Two have announced: Ron Taber of Olympia, sponsor of the school voucher initiative, and Chris Vance, a GOP King County councilman.

Billings said she will decide by mid-March whether to run for Congress. Whatever her decision, she is determined to make the most of whatever time she has left.

“No one of us can predict what our futures are going to be. The only thing we know for sure when we are born is that someday we are going to die. What I want people to know is I can forge ahead. Be positive.

“We have to treasure every moment.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo

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