Julie (Leary) Nadeau’s tale of tragedy and triumph

Julie (Leary) Nadeau’s tale of tragedy and triumph
Julie (Leary) Nadeau holds a plaque that commemorates her 35-point, 19-rebound game against Stevensville in 1986.

‘The first one in the door and the last one to leave the gym’

By Bill Foley

You should see Julie (Leary) Nadeau play pool.

With pretty much only the use of her right arm, she will maneuver her motorized wheelchair around the table to study the angles. She strategically places an ashtray on the side of the table as she calls her shot.

With her right arm, she placed the stick in the cigarette slot of the ashtray and pushed it forward and backward a few times. Then, she shoots.

More often than not, she makes the shot.

It is impossible not to take notice as Julie more than holds her own playing pool against men and women with full use of their arms and legs.

“When I play pool people will watch me,” Julie says. “I always go to the bartender and ask if they have an ashtray. They say, ‘What do you want an ashtray for? I say, ‘It’s my left hand.’”

If you think that is impressive, you should have seen her play basketball.

In the mid to late 1980s, Julie Leary was one of the top high school basketball players in the state. As a junior, she scored a then-school-record 35 points in a game against Stevensville at the Montana Tech HPER Complex. A year later, Julie scored 23 points to lead Butte Central to a 55-52 win over Butte High at the Butte Civic Center.

“For her size, she was probably the best post I ever coached, boy or girl,” said Tom Pomroy Jr., who coached Julie’s last three seasons at BC. “She had a little fade away shot that was deadly. Nobody could stop it.”

More importantly, Pomroy said Julie also had the determination that matched her talent.

“She was a hard worker,” the former coach said. “The first one in the door and the last one to leave the gym.”

That is why then-Montana Tech coach Jo Buysse signed Julie to play basketball for the Orediggers in the spring of 1988.

“Julie is a power player and I feel that she has the potential to be a small-college forward,” Buysse said at the time. “Although we don’t like to compare athletes, she plays much the same as Deann Johnson did when she graduated from high school. I am hopeful that she will be able to make the adjustment to college ball and play right away.”

That comparison was some pretty lofty praise, and Julie knew it at the time. Johnson was just finishing a college career that saw her score 1,075 points at Montana Tech. The Butte High graduate was inducted into the Butte Sports Hall of Fame in 2015.

Julie’s chances of living up to Buysse’s words took a hit when she quit the Tech team early in her freshman year. She later called that the biggest regret of her life.

Julie’s hoop dreams, and so much more, ended forever in the early-morning hours of Nov. 26, 1989 when Julie, just 19, crashed her car on Homestake Pass. The accident left her paralyzed from the chest down. She has very limited use of her left arm and full use of her right.

Last month marked 31 years since the crash that reshaped her life and forever changed her family.

“I’ve spent all of my adulthood in a chair,” she said, matter-of-factly and not looking for sympathy.

For Julie, every little detail of every day is a reminder of that mistake of her youth.

“There’s nothing normal about it. Everything changed,” Julie’s younger brother Dan said. “You don’t think twice about getting in and out of a car. For her, she has to plan it.”

As every day and every not-so-simple task goes by, though, Julie continues to again and again prove to be an inspiration to her family, friends and so much more.

This newspaper clip shows Julie in action during her record-breaking game against Stevensville.

She played 6 foot 2

Julie Leary got her first taste of varsity action for Butte Central late in her freshman season of 1984. The promotion came after she posted big numbers leading the Maroon freshman team.

As a sophomore, she started putting up some big games before really breaking out as a junior. All along, she was known as a hard-nosed player who gave it every thing she had each and every night. She played in 64 career varsity games and scored 644 points, becoming one of just a handful of BC players to ever average in double figures scoring for her entire career.

After her senior year, Julie was named first-team All-State. The following June, she became the first BC girl to play in the Montana Girls’ All-Star Basketball Series.

Some nights, she was absolutely unstoppable. That was certainly the case on Sept. 27, 1986. That is when Julie almost single-handedly beat Stevensville.

In addition to her school-record 35 points, Julie, who was listed at 5-foot-7 and 5-8 in her career at BC, pulled down 19 rebounds to lead the Maroons to a 54-53 victory at the HPER Complex. She also hit a clutch bucket and free throw with 28 seconds left to help BC preserve the victory.

Here is how legendary Montana Standard sportswriter Jim Edgar started his story about that game.

“Julie Leary spent Saturday night in the Montana Tech Gymnasium either putting the ball through the hoop or else pulling it off the backboard.”

The 35 points broke the 1980 record of 33 points of Megan Haran — now Meg Murphy — who was on the BC bench as an assistant coach.

“She had that 5-foot-8 body and played 6 foot 2,” said Murphy, who has since guided the Maroon girls to two Class A State titles as head coach. “She could handle the ball pretty good and she had pretty good speed. She was a little bit quicker than other posts.”

Murphy echoed Pomroy and Buysse when describing Julie’s game.

“She reminded me of Deann Johnson,” Murphy said. “They both just boxed out well. They were in the right spot at the right time. What made Julie so valuable was she could handle the ball a little bit, so she could get by you. She could play with her back to the basket, which is huge for a girl. Pomroy knew if he needed somebody to score, he was going to get her the ball.”

Julie always loved her turnaround shot from the block. She really loved it when she was lighting up the Yellowjackets.

“It seemed like everything I threw up went in in that game,” she said.

All these years later, Julie laughs at the story written by Edgar, who lived just down the street from her.

“He was my best friend,” Julie said of Edgar, who passed away seven years ago. “Every time I’d score, he’d turn around and mouth to the crowd how many points I had.”

Dan Leary had the newspaper story and photo put on a plaque to commemorate the game for his sister. She also has a VHS tape that Pomroy gave her. She plans to have that transformed into a disk.

For now, she has to rely on her memory of the record-breaking performance.

“I can remember running up and down the floor at the end of the game,” Julie said. “I remember shooting free throws in that game. It was pretty much free throws in that game.”

Julie’s record at BC lasted a decade. The great Kellie Johnson, another Butte Sports Hall of Famer who went onto a career at Illinois State, scored 42 points in a game against Whitehall in 1996. It was one of six games in which Johnson scored 31 points or more.

Julie’s 35 points, however, still stand as a school record against Class A competition.

‘Extra mile’

Julie did not break any records on Sept. 10, 1987. She did something even better. Leary and the Maroons pulled off a win for the ages, beating Butte High in front of a crowd of 1,400 at the Butte Civic Center.

Julie scored 15 of her game-high 23 points in the first half. She punished the Bulldogs inside and then hit a key 15-foot jumper in the fourth quarter to spark a BC comeback.

Central outscored the Bulldogs 15-6 in the fourth quarter. Moments after Gina Ossello drove for the go-ahead basket, Julie sank two free throws with 8 seconds left to put the Maroons on top 55-52.

It was BC’s first win over the Bulldogs since 1982.

“I don’t remember what the score was, but I know she was shooting free throws and everybody was screaming,” her mother, Sharon, said about that win. “Thank God she made them.”

The victory was easily the biggest of Julie’s career, which never included a trip to the State tournament. It was also one that epitomized her all-out style of play.

“She was rough and tumble,” Sharon said with a laugh. “Her and Gina Ossello were the wrecking crew. They were wild on the court. It was fun.”

“She was an overachiever,” Pomroy said. “She worked really hard. She would go the extra mile. To get to her level at her size you have to go the extra mile. Julie Leary posted up as well as anybody I have ever seen. She knew how to use her elbows. She knew how to shed arms and score.”

Murphy coached Julie as a freshman as well as from her assistant role on the varsity.

“I never seen anybody work harder than she did,” Murphy said. “Julie always stayed after, and she was always shooting and putting in extra time and conditioning. She made herself that player.”

Pomroy used to make the players run “boards” after practice. A board includes a 2 x 4 wrapped in a towel — or a push broom without the handle. Players had to push the boards up and down the court with both hands on the boards and their butts in the air.

Julie did more boards than anyone else. Part of the reason for that was she lost bets to her coach.

“Me and Poms used to have free throw contests after practice,” Julie said. “One of the bets was I would have to do 100 boards if he beat me. If I won, he had to buy me a case a pop or something. I lost.”

Pomroy was never the kind of coach to let a player slide on a bet. That went double when that player was his best.

“Every day after practice, after we ran to Tech, I would do as many boards as I could,” Julie said. “He would stand there and count them. He made me do them. Not all in one day, but I did them.”

Pomroy, who is now retired, laughs at the idea of any high school basketball players running boards these days. They were absolutely brutal.

“I think boards are a thing of the past now,” he said. “They’d all quit if they had to do them.”

Julie was a standout softball player as a girl. She was part of the North West Little League All-Star team that qualified for the regional tournament in Klamath Falls, Oregon. She was also a solid all-around volleyball player and track athlete for the Maroons. She earned 10 varsity letters. Four of those letters came in basketball, which was her first love.

“I truly loved playing,” she said. “My team was great and I had great coaches who I still talk to all these years later.”

According to newspaper accounts, Julie averaged 19 points and 12 rebounds as a senior at BC. Stats compiled by the late historian Pat Kearney, however, show she averaged 15.7 points. At the time, even the lower number was the best in school history.

Julie best remembers the two biggest games of her career. Those were the wins over Stevensville and Butte High. But that is not the only part of her great career that she likes to talk about. She seems to absolutely cherishes all of her basketball memories, even the bad ones.

“Then, of course, there were the games when I got reamed in the locker room,” Julie said. “There was one game when at halftime Pomroy told me I was the worst defensive player he’s ever seen. Now you talk to him and I’m the best player he ever coached.”

“He told me that, too,” Dan, a year behind Julie in school, said with a laugh. “Apparently I took that from her.”

Of course, Pomroy said that is not even close to true. “That’s the way I used to try to motivate kids,” he said.

“Julie could hold her own defensively,” Dan said. “She used to have a ton of (rebounds). That’s one thing she could really do.”

Biggest regret

Playing for Pomroy was something Julie truly enjoyed. You can tell by the way she lights up when she talks about him.

“I could never play for anybody I didn’t like or if I didn’t feel like they liked me,” she said.

At Montana Tech, Leary was ready to play for Buysse, a women’s athletics pioneer and Oredigger Hall of Famer. She had tons of respect for Buysse, who led the Orediggers to Frontier Conference championships in volleyball and basketball.

“I was looking forward to playing for her too,” Julie said.

A column by Edgar on March 1, 1988 detailed the Tech signing of Julie, a 3.2 student. In June of 1988, however, Buysse, announced she was leaving the school to further pursue her education. Buysse was replaced by Peg Havlovick, who Julie said had different plans for her. She saw the BC star as more of a guard than a power forward.

“I didn’t think she liked me,” Julie said. “She didn’t recruit me. Jo Buysse recruited me.”

That, among several other factors, led to Julie walking away from the Orediggers. Julie said she had a complex relationship with her new boyfriend that fall. She was also devastated by the death of her then boyfriend, Jerry D’Arcy, just days before her high school graduation. The 20-year-old D’Arcy was killed in a crash in the Highlands south of Butte.

Julie played in the Green and White game at Tech that fall before she was forced out of action by a surgery to remover her tonsils. She never rejoined the team, and that is a move that haunts her to this day.

“I have a lot of regrets about quitting basketball,” Julie said. “When I quit at Tech, it was the first thing I ever quit in my life. I never even made a year.”

She went into the fall prepared for the long haul, too.

“I trained with them all summer,” Julie said. “I liked it. I loved it. It was the first thing I ever quit in my life. I regret that more than the wreck.”

After taking the year off, Western Montana College (now Montana Western) coach Gary Cooper approached Julie about playing for the Bulldogs in Dillon.

“After I quit Tech, the following summer Dillon’s coach contacted me and wanted me to walk on down there,” Julie said. “I never did. I wish I would have.”

Had she accepted that offer, Julie would have been playing with the Bulldogs at Tech’s HPER Complex during the Holiday Classic hosted by the Orediggers that weekend. Instead, Sunday, Nov. 26, 1989 is a date Julie and her family will never forget.

Julie worked the super-early shift at a bakery on Saturday morning. That was followed by a job babysitting. After being relieved from her babysitting duties, at about 11:30 p.m., Julie went uptown to join some family and friends at a wedding reception. The party continued at a bar downtown.

Her brother, Jim, was at the reception and then the bar. He was planning an early-morning hunting trip. It was going to be the last day of the season.

“We were all at a wedding reception the night before,” Jim said. “We all went down to the Pair-a-Dice Bar afterwards. I said, ‘I’m heading home.’ She said, ‘Yep, I’ll be home right after you.’ She never showed up.”

The wreck

Julie does not remember getting on the highway after leaving the Pair-A-Dice. She is not even 100 percent sure why she was heading to Whitehall to see her then boyfriend. She said she was probably going to “pick a fight.”

“I don’t remember the accident at all,” she said. “I remember going to the wedding reception. I can tell you where I parked across the street. I remember going to the Pair-a-Dice Bar. I can remember where I parked. I can remember talking to people at the reception.”

From the accident report that she still keeps handy, Julie knows it happened at mile marker 237, heading down the Whitehall side of Homestake Pass, about 10 miles West of Butte. Witnesses driving behind her said she was not speeding. It appeared that Julie fell asleep. Her car drifted off the right side of the road, hit a reflector post, she over-corrected, causing the vehicle to slip sideways into the rocky canyon.

Her call rolled at least twice. Not wearing a seat belt, Julie was thrown from the vehicle.

She does not remember the ambulance getting to her about 4 a.m. The phone rang at the house of her parents, Jim and Sharon, shortly after that.

It was a horrible way for her father to be awakened on his birthday.

When they said she got in a wreck, I was thinking, ‘How bad could it be? She was in town,’” Julie’s brother Jim said. “Then we went up to the hospital and she was in the ICU. They said she was paralyzed from the chest down.”

The family was not allowed to see her at first. They were told Julie had a broken neck and a severe spinal injury.

“It was touch and go,” Sharon said. “We had one doctor come out and pretty much tell us she wasn’t going to make it.”

The Leary family has spent the next three decades trying to put the pieces back together.

“It was not a good day, just not a good day,” Sharon said. “To get a phone call at that time in the morning. You never want to get a call.”

Julie in her high school days. (Courtesy photo)

Learning again

That bad day turned into to bad weeks and then bad months.

On Dec. 21, nearly a month after the accident, Julie finally left the intensive-care unit at St. James Hospital (now St. James Healthcare). She was a long way from going home. Instead, Julie was taken to the Craig Rehabilitation Center in Denver, a world-renowned facility where she had to learn how to live again.

“My head injury was really bad,” she said. “It was a traumatic brain injury. I had to learn to read again and everything.  I couldn’t recognize certain letters, like K’s and L’s. I was in Colorado for four months. I flew home April 30.”

That was a long, hard four months in Colorado for everyone.

“She couldn’t remember anything. She even had to start recognizing letters and picking out letters in a group of letters,” Sharon said. “She had to really learn all that over that again. She has a tough time with numbers. She couldn’t remember some of that stuff, but she could remember phone numbers. The bills were horrendous.”

The staff at the facility noticed how popular Julie was and how much time she spent on the phone.

“When it was time for her to come home, one of the nurses made her a cake in the shape of a phone,” Sharon said. “She loved people. She still does to this day. She’s good with people.”

Going home was not much easier for Julie. The reality of her injury was difficult for someone so active and outgoing to take.

“It was terrible. It was the hardest thing,” she said. “I was a runner. I used to run 3 to 5 miles a day. It used to bother me to watch people run by my house. It pissed me off. It took me a little bit before I could watch basketball again.”

She said it took her a long time to realize that alcohol would not help her through the hard times.

“I wanted to die when I first came back,” Julie said. “It was hard. It was the hardest adjustment ever. I went from really active to nothing.”

Fortunately, Julie’s family was always there to help. Always. Her parents basically devoted their lives to helping their daughter.

“They’re still doing it every day,” Julie’s brother Jim said. “They just turned 79. That’s 31 years ago.”

Her brother, Dan, who had a stellar basketball career at BC, too, was at Lewis-Clark State College in Lewiston, Idaho to play baseball.

The Warriors were in the middle of a run of six straight NAIA national titles from 1987 through 1992, but Dan was never there to raise a banner. He was home for Thanksgiving and scheduled to head back to school on the day of that awful phone call. He never played another baseball game, opting instead to attend Tech and Western before graduation from Tech.

“He came home when I got in my wreck,” Julie said. “He gave up his baseball career for me.”

Julie says she is thankful for her family, which includes her sister, Cathy Sestrich. She said entire family is a huge part of her life on nearly a daily basis.

“The doctors told my parents to prepare for the worse. They didn’t think I would make it through the night,” Julie said. “They’re lifesavers. They’re big supporters. My whole family has been.”

Julie’s mug shot in The Montana Standard.

Independence and inspiration

Getting so much support from her family is not to say that Julie cannot support herself. She can and does.

After getting past the initial depression — though it still comes back from time to time — Julie pulled herself together. A young woman who had to learn how to read again went back to Montana Tech in 1996. In 2000, she graduated with a degree in business.

For the past 20 years, Julie has been a valuable worker for the Butte Central Foundation. She has been married and divorced, and she raised her son, Luke, mostly as a single mother. Luke graduated from Butte High in June.

“She lives independently, and we just help her out when we can,” Sharon said. “We helped with Luke when he was a baby. She would get him in out of that crib with one arm. I don’t know how she did it. She was amazing.”

That was one of many things Julie pulled off after being told she never would. Another is driving. She got back behind the wheel after talking to John Dunn, a Butte man known for racing his wheelchair in the Boston Marathon.

“When I told him that I couldn’t drive, he said ‘bullshit,’” Julie said. “‘If you get somebody to get you in my truck, you can drive my truck.’”

Not long after, her brother Jim lifted Julie into Dunn’s truck, and the two circled around the parking lot at the Butte Civic Center.

“A couple weeks later, I got my driver’s license,” she said.

“That gave her a lot more independence,” Jim added.

Even those who know her best marvel at Julie’s driving, given that she has no finger dexterity in her left hand and she has to control the vehicle with her arms. Most of the motion on her left arm comes from her shoulder.

“I work the gas and the brake with my left arm. Is that scary to think about?” she said with a laugh. “Her left arm doesn’t work, but she works the gas and brake. That’s fun. I’ve only been in four wrecks. None were my fault.”

Jim backs that up. He says the few fender-benders Julie was involved in were all the fault of the other driver.

Julie prides herself on her independence, and she does as much by herself as she possibly can. In the front room of her house, where she lives with her son, dog, three cats and a bird, sits a perfectly decorated Christmas tree. She put all the ornaments and garland on the tree, using a grabbing tool and raising herself up and down with the controls of her chair.

“If she puts her mind to things, she gets them done,” Jim said.

Her older brother said all that Julie does is nothing short of amazing. He said she is amazing.

“For everything she’s had to do with, she sure is,” he said.

Julie in her high school days. (Courtesy photo)

Dreams and reminders

While she hasn’t played in a game in more than three decades, Julie still loves basketball, and the game is still part of her life. She attends most Butte Central games, especially when her nephew Dylan Sestrich and niece Danee Leary played for the Maroons.

She really liked watching Danee, her brother Dan’s daughter, play. The reason for that is obvious to those who saw both on the hardwood.

“I loved watching Danee Jo play,” Julie said. “She reminds me so much of me.”

Just like with Julie, Danee was known for her tough-as-nails approach to the game. “A LOT like her,” said Murphy, who coached both. “A lot.”

Julie watched Jim’s daughter Baylee play volleyball for Butte High, and she catches any game she can when Dan’s son Kenley plays basketball, football or baseball.

“He’s a lot of fun to watch,” Julie said of Kenley, who took on a huge role on the Bulldog team as a sophomore last season. “He’s a great athlete.”

Like with anything, though, watching basketball is a reminder of what Julie has not been able to do these past 31 years.

“I think about playing a lot and would love to,” she said. “But the closest I’ve come is that game at Silver Bow Pizza.”

She motions with her right hand how to shoot the smaller basketballs. Her left hand will not let her hold a regulation ball to shoot properly, so she does not try to shoot on a real hoop.

Those reminders are hard. It is still difficult to see people run down the street.

“She cries a lot,” Sharon said. “She has her good days and bad days.”

It took a while for Julie to come to terms with her accident, but she does not hide from reality. She even spoke to schools as part of the former D.A.R.E. program as an example of what can happen if you drink and drive.

“She had kids come up and say how (her talk) affect them in a positive way,” Sharon said. “She said, ‘If I can save one person, it’s worth it.’”

What happened to Julie can happen to anyone. She got a bad break, and every day is a struggle to deal with it. But she struggles and she deals. She struggles some more.

Even before the coronavirus pandemic, Julie pretty much stopped visiting bars. She said she no longer drinks. In the off chance that she does go to an establishment, however, you can bet that Julie will be looking for a pool table and a game.

“Now that there’s nobody smoking, there’s no ashtrays,” Julie said. “I have to bring my own ashtray.”

When she does play, you can bet people will be marveling as they watch her use that tray to perfection. They cannot help but stare. They will tell somebody about what they saw.

Imagine if only they could see her play basketball. 2 comments

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  • Jean Shaw
    December 24, 2020, 9:53 am

    Julie is such an amazing woman. She has overcome so much adversity. I am so proud of her. Not many can overcome all the obstacles she has. I’m so lucky to be her cousin. I love you, Julie, with all my heart. I’m so happy you received this recognition. No one deserves it more. ❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️

  • Wally Feldt
    December 24, 2020, 5:27 pm

    Exceptional story about an exceptional woman Mr. Foley!


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