James Bilbray brings family touch to namesake elementary school

Bridget Bilbray-Phillips had her own historian behind the wheel of the family car when she needed a boost studying.

Her father, former politician and lifelong Nevadan James Bilbray, was a voracious reader and history buff who helped her ace tests.

“He loves American history . It’s something he’s always been very passionate about,” she said. “I would ask my father to tell me his version of this battle or that and he would tell it in such an exciting and vivacious way. He could make the story come alive.”

James Bilbray made history himself in August 2003 when his namesake school, Bilbray Elementary School, 9370 Brent Lane, began welcoming students.

His daughter served as first principal.

“The fact is, it’s an honor to have a school named after you when you’re born and raised here,” James Bilbray said.

His living legacy is still felt at the school in more than pictures. James Bilbray, 73, visits often and marks major holidays with the students. He even helps hand out awards to notable fifth-graders at the end of the year.

“It’s neat because the kids really like me being out there,” he said. “I’ve seen the growth, seen the kids grow, and now we go out to dinner and we’ll have kids say, ‘You’re Mr. Bilbray.’ ”

Bilbray was a growing fish in little ponds his whole young life. He was born in Las Vegas on May 19, 1938, and was one of about 8,000 residents at the time, he said.

His father was a shoe store owner and later elected as a county assessor. His family lived near Charleston Boulevard, which was the edge of town at the time.

Bilbray jokes that the current location of his namesake school was deemed far-away land when he was a boy.

There was one grade school, high school and small university, and Bilbray attended them all.

Bilbray had school pride as student body president at UNLV, and years later, he helped start an alumni association.

His tastes for civic pride led him to the Nevada Army National Guard and the Army Reserves and a move in 1960 to Washington, D.C., to obtain a government and public administration degree from American University and a law degree from the institution’s Washington College of Law.

James Bilbray and his wife, Michaelene, brought their young family back to Las Vegas, where James was a deputy district attorney and municipal judge before seeking political office. In the 1980s and 1990s, he held seats in the Nevada State Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives.

Education issues crept onto his docket often and into his personal agenda , too. Bilbray was the first UNLV alumnus to serve on the school’s Board of Regents.

He helped enact legislation to support education, such as for the Safekey before- and after-school program and for protecting nature designations, such as the Spring Mountains National Recreation Area and the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area.

Today, Bilbray practices law and serves on the Board of Governors of the United States Postal Service.

Bilbray-Phillips said friends and colleagues of her father submitted the application for a school to be named for him. It opened in 2003 and was dedicated the following year. Bilbray-Phillips and her sisters Erin and Shannon were in attendance with her parents.

She was the family member to break the news about the honor, and the announcement spurred one of her favorite memories.

“I will always remember the call when I found out,” she said. “I was running around the house, and my son asked, ‘Did you win the lottery?’ I said, “No, even better, your grandpa had a school named after him.’ ”

Bilbray-Phillips was principal for three years.

All of James Bilbray’s family, including five grandchildren, call Las Vegas home. He has been married to his wife for 51 years, and the couple live in Summerlin.

He continues to support nonprofit groups, including the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, in honor of the son who passed away from the disease.

“He always had such a passion for was community,” Bilbray-Phillips said. “He’s really modeled that for us girls.”

James Bilbray also is a diehard UNLV Runnin’ Rebels fan and champion for his home state.

Aalya Page, current principal, said the 670 students of Bilbray Elementary School know visits from the namesake will include trivia about Nevada history.

His visits on Halloween include Tootsie Rolls and apples but also recognition of Nevada Day, she said.

Page laughed about a bit of confusion his stops can cause, too.

“The students get so excited when they see him on campus,” she said. “They say, ‘The owner is here!’ It’s hard for them to think namesake and owner.”

James Bilbray said the roots he has planted in Nevada soil are permanent.

“I was born here, I was raised here and I’ll die here,” he said. “I love Vegas, and I’ll always stay here.”

Contact Centennial and Paradise View reporter Maggie Lillis at mlillis@viewnews.com or 477-3839.

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