Sen. Sally Fox died early Friday morning after a two-year battle with lung cancer. She was 62.
An attorney, advocate and veteran legislator, Fox earned a reputation as a tenacious advocate for children, the disabled and low-income Vermonters.
"Her heart was as big as the state," said Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell.
Since she was diagnosed with sarcoma during the 2012 legislative session, Fox fought to continue serving her Chittenden County constituents in the Senate. According to Campbell, he offered several times to move her off the time-intensive Senate Appropriations and Senate Health and Welfare committees, but she declined.
"She said, 'No, I have work to do and I will do it until I can't,'" Campbell recalled.
Earlier this week, Fox's husband, lobbyist Michael Sorotkin, informed legislators that she had been admitted to Fletcher Allen Health Care last Friday and began receiving palliative care on Saturday.
"Sally would want everyone to know how much she loves the Senate and how proud she is to be able to serve with each of you," Sorotkin wrote.
When the legislature reconvened without her Tuesday, Campbell and House Speaker Shap Smith opened the session with moments of prayer on her behalf. On Friday, Smith announced the news of her death on the House floor. Later that morning, Lt. Gov. Phil Scott did the same in the Senate.
"It is with a heavy heart that I gavel in today's session," Scott said from the Senate dais. "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."
As friends and colleagues left notes for Fox's family on a desk outside the Senate Health and Welfare committee room, Gov. Peter Shumlin ordered flags to be lowered to half-staff from Sunday through Tuesday.
Shumlin, who served with Fox on the House Judiciary Committee when he was first appointed to the legislature, said in a statement, "Sally took me under her wing and taught me a great deal about how to effectively serve Vermonters in the Statehouse. She was a great friend, and I will miss her tremendously."
Sen. Jane Kitchell, who chairs the appropriations committee, said, "We're all feeling the loss. Her empty chair has really been a reminder of her absence, and yet how much she has contributed to the legislature over the years."
"Sally just was so smart and so knowledgeable and such a hard worker," Kitchell said. "Her commitment to the legislature made her an outstanding colleague, and we all thought the world of her."
First elected to the Vermont House in 1986, Fox represented Essex for 14 years, serving as chair of the House Judiciary Committee and then the House Appropriations Committee. After leaving the legislature in 2000, Fox served as director of family court operations for the Vermont Supreme Court. She later worked for Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility, the city of Burlington's offender reentry program and the Vermont State Colleges.
In 2010, then a resident of South Burlington, Fox was elected to the state senate, representing Chittenden County.
On her website, Fox said she was particularly proud of her work reforming Vermont's health care system and helping with the implementation of the federal Affordable Care Act. But she said her biggest legislative accomplishment was helping to create the state's family court system.
"The thing that always really impressed me about Sally was the level of passion and work that she was willing to do to represent people who oftentimes weren't represented within the building," Speaker Smith said Friday. "She was a good person. She was funny. Even through these last couple of years, when it was clear she was having a rough go of it, she would have a smile on her face and she would laugh."
Campbell said that even though Fox's voice was softened by her illness, it did not keep her from using it effectively.
"Even though it was a small voice, it rang loud for those people whose voices are seldom heard in this building," he said.
Fox's family and friends will hold a public service for her Sunday at 1 p.m. at South Burlington's Temple Sinai. The Senate plans to pass a resolution in her honor next week and provide time for members to share their memories of her.