Just three days after they returned to Montpelier last Tuesday, Vermont legislators received the worst of news: They had lost one of their own.
“It is with a heavy heart that I gavel in today’s session,” Lt. Gov. Phil Scott told grief-stricken members of the Vermont Senate on Friday morning. “For those of you who haven’t heard, our dear friend and colleague, Sen. Sally Fox, passed away early this morning, bringing the first week of the session to a tragic close.”
That such a day was expected — Fox had been diagnosed with a rare and lethal form of sarcoma nearly two years before — did not diminish the heartache. Throughout the Statehouse, business ground to a standstill. Legislators hugged one another and openly wept. The governor ordered flags to be lowered to half-staff. A single white rose appeared on Fox’s senate desk No. 9.
“We’re all feeling the loss,” said Sen. Jane Kitchell (D-Caledonia).
Born in Omaha, Neb., in 1951, Sally Fox made her mark on the world 1,300 miles to the east in her adopted state of Vermont. She spent nearly four decades fighting for the state’s children, low-income families, and those with mental and physical disabilities.
“She was a rock star for people who were in dire need,” said Sen. Philip Baruth (D-Chittenden).
Starting in 1977, Fox spent more than a decade working as an attorney with Vermont Legal Aid’s developmental disabilities law project. In 1986, she was elected to the first of seven terms representing Essex in the Vermont House, eventually serving as assistant majority leader and chair of the judiciary and appropriations committees.
“The thing that impressed me about Sally was her sense of justice, which was strong,” said Michael Obuchowski, commissioner of buildings and general services, who credits Fox with helping to elect him speaker of the House in 1995. “She knew the difference between right and wrong and really stood up for what she thought was right.”
After leaving the legislature in 2000, Fox kept both feet firmly planted in public policy. She directed family court operations for the Vermont Supreme Court and ran the city of Burlington’s offender reentry program. She remained a presence in the Statehouse, too, lobbying for Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility and then for the Vermont State Colleges.
In 2010, then a resident of South Burlington, Fox returned to the political fray, running to represent Chittenden County in the Vermont Senate.
“I think she always missed the legislature,” said Rep. Martha Heath (D-Westford).
Though a decade had passed since she had last run for public office, Fox easily rose to the top of the pack. Out of a field of 16 candidates, she came in second place, besting three incumbent senators.
“She was so worried about every race,” said close friend Susan Elliot, a community liaison for Congressman Peter Welch. “After that election I just kept saying, ‘Doesn’t that reassure you at all?’”
Said Judy Dickson, another close friend, “Even when she was a high vote-getter, she never ever took for granted that she would be reelected. She knew she would have to earn everybody’s vote.”
In the Senate, Fox quickly established herself as a serious player on the health and welfare and finance committees. While her cohort of freshman senators earned a mixed reputation for their loquaciousness, Fox was rarely considered part of the newbie pack.
“Obviously because of her many years of experience in the legislature, she just had a historic perspective and a depth on the issues,” said Kitchell, who later served as Fox’s chairwoman on the Senate Appropriations Committee. “Sally was just so smart and so knowledgeable and such a hard worker.”
But in the winter of 2012, Fox’s luck turned. After coming down with what appeared at first to be a cough, she was diagnosed with a rare form of sarcoma. A surgery to remove a tumor and her left lung kept her out of the Statehouse for weeks, but she returned that spring with a new outlook on an issue she held dear.
“It was a miraculous experience for me,” Fox told Seven Days in June 2012. “I learned a lot about the health care system, really. I’m going to have a different perspective than I have up until now, certainly, seeing it from a consumer point of view.”
Despite her health struggles, Fox vowed to seek another term that fall.
“I’ve got work left to do,” she said. “I want to go back and finish the job — or at least continue the work on health care reform.”
Sure enough, Fox won a second term in the Senate. Though her voice was weakened and her energy depleted, she rarely missed a day of work during the 2013 legislative session.
“She was a force to be reckoned with,” said Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell (D-Windsor). “Even though it was a small voice, it rang loud for those people whose voices are seldom heard in this building.”
While friends say Fox did not dwell on her illness, it was inextricably linked to one of the most contentious issues of last year’s legislative session: the debate over whether to let doctors prescribe life-ending drugs to terminally ill patients.
With the Senate deadlocked over the question last winter, Baruth recalls, Fox spoke out at a meeting of Democratic legislators held at a Montpelier apartment rented by Sens. Jeanette White (D-Windham) and Claire Ayer (D-Addison).
“Her voice was very faint. She said, ‘Look, let’s strip this away. I may need this in the next year or two,’” Baruth said. “There was this big pause. And she said, ‘I want my choice to do this protected. It’s not theoretical. This is something I’m actually having to think about now.’”
“Sally cared enough about it that she was willing to voice that, which is everybody’s greatest fear — that they’re not going to survive their bout with cancer,” Baruth said. “I thought that showed a tremendous amount of courage, but it also showed how much she cared about the policy.”
Fox’s Statehouse colleagues came out in droves Sunday for her funeral at South Burlington’s Temple Sinai. Legislators, lobbyists, committee staffers and governors past and present joined Fox’s friends and family for a reflection on a life devoted to others.
“Sally herself would never have expected all of this. She was a very humble person and, at times, very shy,” said Michael Sirotkin, her husband of 35 years. “All this love and praise would have made that broad and beautiful smile of hers even broader and more beautiful.”
Sirotkin, who was joined in eulogizing his late wife by sons Jacob and Jesse, described meeting Fox 39 years before in a nighttime bar review class in Colorado and finding himself “immediately smitten.” After a cross-country road trip cemented their romance, they were, he said, “The city boy from Queens and the country girl, who turned out to be a fireball, from Omaha.”
Throughout her political career, Sirotkin said, “She truly put family first.” But it was Fox’s devotion to the legislature, which “had always been her love, her passion,” that kept her focused on staying well in her final year. Just 10 days before, he said, they had settled on a plan to ensure that she’d be able to return to the Senate last week.
“She wanted to continue to make a difference, as she had done all her life, in whatever small way she could,” Sirotkin said.
After the service, friends reflected on her drive to carry on. Dickson, who first met Fox when the two worked together at Vermont Legal Aid, recalled seeing her old friend near the end of the year.
“She really felt terrible,” Dickson said. “But on her lap she was editing the report of the Mental Health Oversight Committee, which she had chaired over the summer, making corrections to send back to legislative counsel, so it would be ready for a meeting they would have the following week. She just never stopped.”
“I think the legislature was her salvation,” Heath said. “It could give her a sense of accomplishment at a time when she was dealing with a very tough illness.”
Fox was not one to wallow in self-pity, her friends said.
“She was so good at being quiet and brave about it,” Elliot said. “It was totally unfair to her that she got cancer, but she never complained about it.”
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