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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."
And she recognized the trailblazing significance of being the first woman to lead the chamber.
"There's something to the visual, the actually seeing a woman as the speaker," she said. "There's something powerful to that, because other young women and girls say, 'I can do that because I've actually seen one.' "
Lockhart wasn't sure what she wanted to do after her time in office ended Dec. 31, 2014. There had been widespread speculation that she would run for governor in 2016, challenging Herbert speculation she did not rule out.
She said she wanted to remain involved in policy issues she felt were important like modernizing the state's education system and asserting state control of public lands and expressed interest in going back to school to earn a graduate degree in public policy.
"There are lots of options," she said. "I do know what I'm good at. I'm good at public policy."
She and former House Minority Leader Jennifer Seelig, D-Salt Lake City, had discussed doing work to encourage more women to get involved in leadership roles. Lockhart and Seelig were scheduled to participate in a forum on women in leadership in California in June.
They had also started work on a book about their experiences as women in leadership roles, and Lockhart had been talking with officials at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government about enrolling.
Lockhart dived into politics in 1997 after her state representative abruptly resigned midterm. Some political insiders tried to persuade her husband, Stan Lockhart, to run for the seat, but it was Becky, then not yet 30 years old and a nurse by training, who stepped into the fray.
She won the special election among the Republican delegates by a wide margin, but then-Gov. Mike Leavitt appointed a friend, former Provo Police Chief Swen Nielsen, to fill the position.
A year later, Lockhart ran for the Provo seat, clinching the nomination and winning the November election easily. She became a leader in the body on transportation issues and helped reshape how the state pays to build and maintain roads.
She joined the House leadership team in 2008, with her election as assistant majority whip, and then surprised many when she jumped into the race for the House's top spot in 2010, upsetting the sitting speaker, Rep. Dave Clark of Santa Clara by a single vote.
The House made a big stumble in her first session as speaker when lawmakers pushed through then later returned to repeal changes in the state's open-records law.
But she also shepherded the House through a contentious fight over state-based immigration reform, oversaw heated debates on health care and public-lands management, and led the body as it investigated alleged wrongdoing by then-Attorney General John Swallow a probe that could ultimately have led to his impeachment.
"Her unwavering commitment to Utah's schoolchildren, economic development and the bolstering of Utah's transportation infrastructure will be felt for generations," said her successor as speaker, Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper. "While it is hard to understand how someone so good and so young could be taken from us, we can cherish the experiences and associations we had with Becky."
Hughes, fighting back tears, told reporters Saturday that Utah's representatives will try to "honor her and make her proud."
As is tradition, Lockhart was expected to take part in the first day of the 2015 legislative session, which begins Jan. 26.
"We had expected her to start that session as we transitioned, as well as honor her that first day," he said. "It makes the occasion, [as] we get ready for the session, much more somber and sad for us."
Lockhart is survived by her husband, Stan, a past chairman of the Utah Republican Party. They have three children, including Hannah and Emily. Their youngest, Stephen, is in Richmond, Virginia, where he is serving a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Funeral arrangements have not been announced.
Tribune reporter Matt Canham contributed to this story.
Rare brain disease
Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, the affliction that claimed Lockhart's life, is known for its relentless progression. › A17