Obituary: Willem Jewett, 1963-2022 | Obituaries | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Obituary: Willem Jewett, 1963-2022

Former state representative helped pass Vermont's Death With Dignity Law and was a fierce cycling competitor

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Willem Jewett - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy Photo
  • Willem Jewett

The spirit of our beloved husband, father, brother, uncle and friend, Willem Westpalm van Hoorn Jewett, left his physical body on Wednesday afternoon, January 12, 2022, at his home in Ripton, Vt., surrounded by his family. His life was cut short by mucosal melanoma, but it was remarkably full and well lived. He was 58.

Willem was born on August 23, 1963, in Larchmont, N.Y., the second son of Marianne van Hoorn and Joseph Jewett. The summer Willem was born, his parents bought four acres of land in Waitsfield, Vt., and built a cabin on Tucker Hill Road. This simple two-room A-frame became the crucible in which Willem and his brother Joe’s love of outdoor exploration and adventure began.

Willem grew up in Westport, Conn., and graduated from Loomis-Chaffee School in Windsor, Conn., in 1981. During high school, he became an accomplished downhill skier and began a lifelong series of cycling exploits. He continued to develop his athletic skills at Bowdoin College, where he captained the alpine ski team to two back-to-back division championships. He graduated in 1985 with a degree in psychology.

It was through his work coaching skiing at Keene State College that he met his first wife, Jean Cherouny, who was a talented ski racer.

Willem entered the law program at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore., and continued his fun-hog activities in the Northwest. He received his JD in 1994 and was admitted to the Vermont Bar in 1995.

Willem and Jean were married in 1992. He joined the Conley & Foote Law Firm in Middlebury in 1994 and remained with the firm until 2017, treasuring the friendships he made there, especially his relationship with Dick Foote. Willem and Jean built a house in Ripton, where they raised their two daughters, Abigail and Anneke.

Willem was a creative problem solver and joined the Ripton School Board in 1998. His work on the board and interest in public service led him to a successful run for the Vermont House of Representatives in 2002. He served the towns of Ripton, Goshen, Hancock, Salisbury, Cornwall and Leicester from 2003 to 2017, including two years as the House majority leader, from 2013 to 2014.

Willem was an effective and respected leader in the Vermont House of Representatives for 14 years. In his roles as assistant majority leader and majority leader, Willem used his intellect, grit, humor — and occasional impatience — to build support for the causes that mattered to him, his constituents and Vermonters during his legislative career. In his eight years as a member of the House Judiciary Committee, he fought for equal access to justice for Vermonters, played an important role in passing historic marriage equality legislation and worked with the chief justice and others to reorganize the Vermont Judiciary. He passionately advocated for the adoption of measures to reduce the use of tobacco and e-cigarettes. In 2012, he helped to create a redistricting plan that received overwhelming tri-partisan support in the Vermont legislature.

Willem maintained strong friendships in the Vermont legislature that crossed party lines. He had incredible attention to detail in crafting legislation; was clear, dignified and fair while presiding on behalf of the speaker over House proceedings; and, among friends and colleagues in the Statehouse, was generous with both his laughter and mischievous sense of humor. He was extremely proud of his work to help pass Act 39, the Death With Dignity Law. Up until his last day, Willem lobbied for changes to Act 39 to make it more accessible for Vermonters who need it.

In October 2017, Willem and his business partner and friend Jenn Blomback started Mad River Valley Law in Waitsfield. Jenn and Willem were a power team and built a business that is thriving. Willem continued to guide others with legal counsel until a few weeks before his death.

Willem was a fierce cycling competitor and was devoted to his teammates at Jackalope Northeast Cycling. He was often among the top finishers in the several races he entered each year, including Vermont Overland, Rooted Vermont, Wilmington Whiteface and the Green Mountain Stage Race. During the years from 2015 to 2019, he went west to compete and earned the silver belt buckle in two Leadville 100 races, won his division in the five-day Breck Epic and podiumed for his division in the Breck 100.

Willem’s last four years were spent with Ellen Blackmer McKay, who shared Willem’s love of outdoor adventure. In 2019, they traveled to Iceland, where Willem competed in the Rift, a 200-kilometer gravel bike race through the volcanic highlands. During Willem’s last few months, plans were afoot to bring Phoebe, a vintage wooden motorboat designed by his grandfather Albert Willem Westpalm van Hoorn, back from the Thousand Islands area of the St. Lawrence to her new home on Lake Champlain.

Ellen and Willem were married in Ripton last June.

Willem is survived by his wife, Ellen; his daughters, Abigail and Anneke; and his brother, Joe Jewett.

Willem was deeply appreciative of the excellent care he received from Dr. Keisuke Shirai and his team at the Norris Cotton Cancer Center. Four months before his death, Willem rode 100 miles with members of his cycling team, accompanied by his brother and daughters, and raised over $20,000 for the Prouty fundraiser for cancer research.

The family is also deeply grateful to Dr. Diana Barnard and hospice nurse Stephanie Stoddard for the care they provided to all of us in Willem’s last days and hours. Willem and Diana worked closely together during the crafting of Act 39, the Patient Choices legislation.

Memorial contributions can be made to the Norris Cotton Cancer at Dartmouth-Hitchcock or to Addison County Home Health and Hospice Services.

A memorial gathering is planned when COVID-19 allows, hopefully in the spring.

A more detailed obituary appears in VTDigger.org.

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