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Mt. Lebanon woman's character full of fighting spirit

| Thursday, Aug. 6, 2009

During her senior year at the University of Pittsburgh-Johnstown in 1994, Jody Billingsley walked into her basketball coaches' office with her face cut, discolored and swollen from a serious car crash.

"I'm really bad," she told her coaches, "but I'm going to play."

True to her word, Billingsley strapped on a protective mask and never missed a game.

"That was the kind of kid she was," said Pitt-Johnstown's former coach Jodi Gault, who kept a picture of Billingsley's swollen face on her desk to inspire recruits. "She was a winner. You don't find those kinds of kids anymore."

Billingsley, 37, of Mt. Lebanon died Tuesday night at the LA Fitness center in Collier from a bullet wound in the upper back and perforated thoracic aorta, the Medical Examiner's Office said. Funeral arrangements are being handled by Timothy Hartle Funeral Home in Franklin, Venango County.

News of Billingsley's death spread quickly among former teammates and classmates.

"Everybody is devastated," said Toddy Reese, 39, of Bethel Park, a former roommate. "It doesn't seem real. She just called me on my birthday, Aug. 1. And the day before that, she called Coach Gault on her birthday."

Billingsley earned a biology degree, school officials said. She graduated with honors.

"Jody is being remembered across campus as not only an exemplary student but an outstanding member of our women's basketball team," said Bob Knipple, Pitt-Johnstown's executive director of external relations.

Billingsley, who was single, grew up in Utica in Venango County, friends said.

She went to Franklin High School, and after graduating from Pitt-Johnstown she earned her master's and doctoral degrees in physical therapy from Chatham University.

"She had a lovely smile, and she used it all the time," said Susan Perry, associate professor in Chatham's physical therapy program. "Today one of the things I'm remembering about her is that smile."

Billingsley worked briefly as a physical therapist's aide in Shadyside before enrolling at Chatham. She later worked at HealthSouth, a health care provider. At the time of her death she was a sales representative for Medtronic Inc., a medical technologies company based in Minneapolis.

"Medtronic is deeply saddened by her loss and has offered support to Jody's family and to those who knew and worked with her," said company spokeswoman Cindy Resman. "We are working with the family to honor their wishes with regards to a memorial."

"She was the best person I know, honestly," said Jamie Wyels, 35, of Shaler, a pharmacist who met Billingsley five years ago when they worked at HealthSouth. "Unselfish, caring, loving. ... She glowed."

In Billingsley's Mt. Lebanon neighborhood, a reading light in the living room burned through the night and into the next afternoon. Billingsley left it on Tuesday night when she left for LA Fitness.

"She gave us a big smile and a big wave, and away she went," said John Williams, a neighbor. "What a waste. What a tragedy."

"She's gone. She's gone," said Pam Christner, 63, a next-door neighbor for seven years.

Christner's eyes welled with tears as she looked to a small patch of grass near the street that Billingsley mowed for her every week, never waiting to be asked.

"She just did it on Sunday," Christner said.

Billingsley's own well-groomed yard is where she seemed to spend most of her free time, neighbors said. Once or twice a year, her parents, who own a nursery in Ohio, would travel to Mt. Lebanon towing a trailer laden with mulch and plants, they said.

Mindy Gagliardi, a former teammate at Pitt-Johnstown, said she and others are praying for Billingsley's family.

"Her parents are really good people and I just can't imagine what they're going through right now," said Gagliardi, who lives near Raleigh, N.C. "We're praying for them, and praying for Jody. That's all we can do right now."

Everyone who met Jody Billingsley inevitably adored her, friends said.

"She was just a wonderful spirit," said close friend Bruce Ibe of Squirrel Hill.

"This is a kid that was very self-motivated," said Deb Yesenosky, a former assistant basketball coach at Pitt Johnstown. "She always found a way to get the job done, and she did it with absolute perfection. ... My phone has rung off the hook since we heard about this. I'm getting text messages saying, 'Please say it isn't her! Say there's another Jody Billingsley!'

"How can this happen?" Yesenosky said. "How can this happen to somebody who does absolutely everything right in life?"

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