Cover photo for Nina Renee Richardson's Obituary
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1956 Nina Renee Richardson 2023

Nina Renee Richardson

August 9, 1956 — August 17, 2023



Nina Renee Richardson of Bellingham, Washington, lost her battle with cancer early Thursday morning, August 17, 2023.  The end came swiftly, mercifully fast, after three bonus years that were the gift of wonderful medical care. Those three years were happy years in which Nina was her normal, happy self, visiting with family and friends; gardening, singing and playing guitar with her husband, Mike Schway, and their musician friends; walking almost daily in Cornwall Park behind their house. She was able to make several trips to Cannon Beach, Oregon, a place she loved, as well as other places along the Pacific Coast. Nina loved birds and trees and plants. A gifted teacher, she enjoyed sharing her love of the natural world with others. That love was with her until the end.

Nina Renee was born August 9, 1956, in Tokyo, Japan. She was the first-born child of Loretta Willems Richardson and Benjamin Herald Richadson, a young airman who was stationed at Yakota Air Force Base on the outskirts of Tokyo. Nina’s parents returned to the States in early 1957 for a short assignment at Donaldson Air Force Base in Greenville, South Carolina. When her father received his discharge papers the following October, her parents returned home to Phoenix, Arizona to be near family and friends.

Phoenix was home, but it was not where her parents wanted to settle. They hated the hot weather and wanted to live and build a home where summers were cool, where there were abundant trees and abundant water. In late April 1960, the family left Phoenix and bought an old log house on five acres near Monroe, Washington. They loved their little farm, and they loved Monroe, but jobs were scarce, and Nina’s father hated the one he had as a Correction Officer at the Reformatory in Monroe.  In December 1961, the family moved back to Phoenix, where they stayed until June 1968, when they again moved back to Monroe. Nina ’s mother, who completed college while the family was in Phoenix, had a contract to teach English at Monroe High School, and her father went to work as an aircraft electrician for Boeing Aircraft at its new Mukilteo facility, a job he would keep until retirement.

Nina Renee turned twelve the summer the family moved back to Monroe. She attended both junior and senior high school there, graduating from Monroe High School in 1974, when she moved to Seattle to attend college. She received a Bachelor of Science degree in clinical psychology from the University of Washington in 1978, followed by a fifth year in Special Education in 1979.

Washington State schools were in a funding crisis in the late 1970s, and Seattle schools were in the midst of a massive reduction in staff. A teaching job was out of the question for the foreseeable future, and Nina and her neighbor, Christie Stewart-Stein, decided to start a daycare and nursery school in the lower level of an old church located in the Wallingford district where both of them lived. Researching everything available about what was required, they made the necessary changes to the physical space and obtained the required licenses. Interlake Child Care and Learning Center was an immediate success and soon outgrew its existing space. Incorporating as a non-profit, with parents of the children on its board, they were soon able to buy their own building and hire additional staff. The Center and the program of individualized learning that Nina created is still going strong.

In the mid-1980s, Renee decided she wanted to move on to other work. She had a strong background in math and science and wanted to pursue it vocationally. Seattle had become the center of the computer software industry, and she was able to find a position drafting new software at a small software company that went out of business a year or two after she was hired. When that job ended, she decided to return to teaching. She missed working with children, and the financial situation of the Seattle School District had improved. After a year of substitute teaching in the district, she was hired for a position teaching kindergarten in the International District where most of the incoming students had not yet begun to learn English. She continued to work with immigrant children in the International District until she moved to Bellingham in 2002.  

Renee loved music. She had a beautiful voice, played guitar and sang in the choir in high school. During her time of vocational of exploration, she pulled that love back into her life. She began attending contra-dances and joined a singing group, The Sacred Cow Harmonizers. She also joined an English dance group, Nonesuch, that performed at Folk Life and other music festivals. It was here in the dance community that Nina met Karen G. Anderson, who became a close, life-long friend. Nina made three other life-long friends during the time, Mary Hanson, Karen Brozovich and Ellen Stoecker, her housemates in a big, old house that Mary owned on Whitman Avenue in the Wallingford District.

In 1992, Nina’s sister, Benith Waltke, was diagnosed with myelogenous leukemia. She needed a bone marrow transplant, and Nina was able to be the donor. Benith was accepted into the program at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center in Seattle. She and her husband, Richard Waltke, lived in Dallas, Texas, and Nina’s friends rallied around to support both Nina and Benith. Karen Anderson, offered to let Benith and Dick stay with her while Benith waited for a room at the hospital. Nina’s housemates on Whitman Avenue invited Nina’s mother, Loretta Willems, who lived in Missouri, to stay in their guest room during Benith’s months-long stay at Fred Hutchinson. Christie Stewart-Stein, would pick up Nina’s mother each weekday and take her to the hospital to be with Benith until Nina was through teaching. The transplant was successful, and five months later, Benith was allowed to return to Dallas. Thanks to these friends a very hard time was also a time of much good, a time of gratitude and bonding.

Nina continued her engagement with the Seattle music community throughout the 1990s, and in the middle of the decade began to attend the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes held each summer at Fort Worden, just outside Port Townsend on the Olympic Peninsula, where she attended both voice and guitar workshops. She was invited to join an all-female Cajun music ensemble as well as a Cajun band named Cayenne. In 1997, they put out a compact disc, Cayenne Live at the Greenwood. The back cover describes the musicians, stating that “Nina Richardson (guitar) helps keep the band anchored with her rock-steady rhythm and strong vocals.” In 1999, the recording received an award for the best Cajun recording by a group outside Louisianna from the Cajun French Music Association in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

It was at Fiddle Tunes that Nina met Michael Schway, the man who became her husband and life partner. Nina first encountered, Mike, who plays fiddle and Cajun accordion, at a crowded late-night jam session, where there were communication problems which inadvertently led to some hurt feelings. Three years later, they became reacquainted when Mike was assisting with a workshop she was taking.  Upon realizing that first impressions aren’t always the most accurate, they started dating shortly afterwards.

Mike lived in Bellingham, Washington. In the summer of 2002, Nina joined Mike and his fourteen-year-old daughter, Rachel, and began her Bellingham life. She found employment with the Bellingham School District as a primary teacher at Sunnyland Elementary School, later transferring to Birchwood Elementary before moving with the staff to Cordata Elementary when Birchwood closed. She stayed at Cordata until her retirement in 2019.

In 2004, Nina and Mike exchanged marriage vows before a large gathering of friends and family, a day of music and laughter and love. In 2011, Nina’s step-daughter, Rachel, married to Daniel Putich. They became the parents of two daughters: Kyra and Kensie, Nina’s much-loved granddaughters.

Nina’s Bellingham family eventually included her mother and stepfather, Loretta Willems and William Haney, who moved there in 2012; her sister Benith and her husband, Richard Waltke, who moved to Sudden Valley in 2016; and Mike’s sister Heidi, her husband Ernie Hutchins and their son Matt, who moved from Southern California to Birch Bay in 2015. Nina’s family circle also included her father and step-mother, Ben and Alice Richardson, who lived in Coupeville on Whidby Island, a beautiful place less than two hours away from Bellingham.

Nina’s life was surrounded by a wide circle of family and friends. When she was diagnosed with metastasized endometrial cancer in the summer of 2020, they circled round her, supported her throughout the entire journey. Nina was a patient with the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. On the days that Nina received treatment, Karen Anderson and her partner, Tom Whitmore, would bring food, delicious food, to Mike and Nina’s hotel room, making sure that both Nina and Mike had good things to eat whenever they were in Seattle. Bellingham neighbors and friends brought food and flowers to Nina and Mike’s. Other friends knit soft caps when Nina lost her hair from chemo; Laurel Bliss, a Master Gardener, repeatedly weeded and pruned the garden Nina loved. Brigget LeClair brought by pies and flowers. Nina, her mother and sister Benith got together for tea every week. Nina also met regularly with friends on zoom during the height of the pandemic, later met with them in outdoor settings—parks, and backyards and restaurant patios. They gathered to enjoy each other’s company, to laugh and make music.

Making music was a deeply important part of Nina’s life. She, Krisanne Parker and Laura Smith met weekly to sing Southern Appalachian folk music. Laurel Bliss and her husband, John Clark, would join with Nina and Mike to make music. Nina sang and played guitar; Mike played fiddle and Cajun accordion; John played guitar, and banjo. Laurel sang, played fiddle and Dobro. This group, The Happy Valley Sluggers, were well known in the music community, performed widely before the pandemic and resumed performing in outdoor settings after the advent of vaccines. On July 22, 2023, the group played for an event at the Bison Book Binding in the Granary Building at Way Point Park. This was their last gig, performed just three and a half weeks before Nina’s death.

~ ~ ~

Nina Renee is survived by her husband Michael Schway; sister Benith Waltke and her husband Richard; step-daughter Rachel Putich and her husband, Danny; grand-daughters Kyra and Kenzie Putich; mother Loretta Willems and step-father William Haney; step-mother Alice Richardson; nephew Nathan Schoone, his wife, Heather, and their four boys: Adrian, Henry, Harrison and Benjamin Schoone.

Preceding Nina Renee in death were her father Benjamin Harold Richardson and grandparents: Jacob and Agnes Willems; Stanley and Clara Richardson.

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