Becky Lockhart, who served 16 years in the Legislature and was the first female speaker of the Utah House, died at her Provo home shortly after noon Saturday from a rare neurodegenerative brain disease.
She was 46.
“She was at peace and surrounded by her family,” said Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo. “It’s a credit to world-class doctors and Becky’s indomitable spirit that they were able to have these past days together with her.”
Acting as family spokesman, Bramble said in news release that “the outpouring of prayers and positive thoughts continue to help sustain the family, and they thank everyone for their support.”
Lockhart suffered from Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. She began showing symptoms of the ailment in recent weeks and was admitted to the hospital less than a week after leaving office, and her family first publicly acknowledged she was critically ill.
Reaction to her death — and praise for her life — came swiftly and from across Utah’s political spectrum.
“Speaker Lockhart was a tremendous public servant,” Gov. Gary Herbert said. “While she was first and foremost a wonderful wife and mother, she was also a remarkable role model, particularly to the untold numbers of women who were inspired by her example to be involved in public service.”
Newly minted U.S. Rep. Mia Love, a history maker herself as the first black Republican woman elected to Congress, also pointed to Lockhart’s example and quoted the former speaker saying that women may feel “uncomfortable” speaking out “until we make it normal for women to be heard, until we are heard for our ideas and not viewed as tokens.”
“She wasn’t afraid to take a stand,” Love said. ” … Because of Becky’s courage, many of Utah’s mothers and patriots across this country have found our voice.”
Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City, said Lockhart stood as “an amazing example to young women across Utah on the importance of women in community service, elected or otherwise.”
Nicknamed “Utah’s Iron Lady” by some, Lockhart kept a set of brass balls on her desk in the speaker’s office — a gift from Bramble. But the mother of three was also an aficionado of 1980s arena rock bands like Journey and Def Leppard and enjoyed goofy comedic movies.
Before becoming speaker, Lockhart volunteered as a docent in the Capitol, guiding tours through a building she spoke fondly of and the House of Representatives, an institution she loved.
“I suppose I can be a little crusty at times,” she said on the last night of the 2014 session. “But beneath this crusty exterior there’s a tender place, a special place where I keep my memories of the past 16 years. This House, it’s practically my home.”
“It’s a place where we fight, but that’s OK, because family can fight,” she said. “It’s a place where lobbyists may congregate, but constituents get to cut to the front of the line. … It’s a place where process, beautiful and messy, continues to ensure great policy becomes great law.”
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said Lockhart “will indeed be heralded for her satin-and-steel leadership in the House … but more significantly, she will hold a special place in countless hearts because of who she was.”
In an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune last month — after symptoms of her illness already had begun to manifest themselves — she said she hoped during her time as speaker she fostered a collaborative atmosphere, where every member of the House felt like his or her input was important and that the laws the body passed benefited from the bottom-up approach.
That governing style did not go unnoticed.
“The most striking thing about Becky, if you are talking about her political self, is her collaborative nature,” said Sen. Deidre Henderson, R-Spanish Fork. “She wasn’t interested in being in power for the sake of being powerful. She was interested in finding solutions to problems, and she understood that no one person had all of the answers. She was very good at empowering the people around her.”