Politics

‘Forza’: Willem Jewett, former Vermont House majority leader, remembered as ‘a force’ — in the Statehouse and on the trail

Photo courtesy of the Jewett family

During his years in the Vermont Legislature, Willem Jewett found a way to join two of his favorite pursuits — public service and cycling — with an annual Earth Day bike ride to the Statehouse. Though many of his colleagues admit they drove their cars most of the way, switching to bikes only when they were within spitting distance of the Capitol, Jewett always biked the full 50-plus miles from his home in Ripton to Montpelier. 

“He made the rest of us look like complete slackers,” former House Speaker Shap Smith said. 

Those who knew Jewett, an attorney and former House majority leader, said this was the way he lived most of his life, whether he was whipping votes at the Statehouse, assisting clients at his law firm or cycling with his friends and family. Following his death last week at 58, those close to Jewett recalled his insatiable appetite for life, his dedication to others and, perhaps most memorably, his cackling laugh — once a fixture in the Statehouse. 

“That man filled every minute of every day,” said Jenn Blomback, a paralegal who co-founded Jewett’s firm. 

“He was a force,” said Rep. Sarah Copeland Hanzas, D-Bradford, who served alongside Jewett for years in the Legislature. 

“No half measures,” his wife Ellen McKay Jewett said. “It was 100%. Always.”

Even in his final days, Jewett continued to fight for the public policies in which he believed. Last Monday, he spoke with VTDigger about what he saw as limitations in Vermont’s medical-aid-in-dying law, Act 39, which he had helped usher through the Legislature a decade earlier. 

The law had grown even more consequential to Jewett after he was diagnosed a year and a half ago with mucosal melanoma, a rare cancer of the mucosal membrane. Two days after the interview, on Wednesday, Jan. 12, Jewett chose to end his life using a prescription obtained through the law, with family and friends by his side.

‘For the Legislature or for us’

Jewett grew up in Connecticut, making frequent trips to his parents’ cabin in Waitsfield. He graduated from Bowdoin College in 1985, worked several outdoor recreation jobs, and later earned his law degree from Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon. He married his first wife, Jean Cherouny, in 1992, and they built their home in Ripton, where they raised their daughters Anneke, now 25, and Abi, 22. Jewett worked as an attorney at Conley & Foote in Middlebury from 1994 until 2017, when he started his own firm. 

Jewett’s career in public service began in 1998, when he joined the Ripton School Board. Four years later, he defeated incumbent Rep. Ward Mann, R-Leicester, to represent several Addison County towns in the Vermont House. Jewett won by just 26 votes

Photo courtesy of the Jewett family

Abi Jewett said that while her father sometimes campaigned door-to-door on his bicycle, he also loved including his daughters in the political process. He brought them along to honk-and-waves in the Middlebury roundabout, with a very young Anneke sometimes clad in pajamas. Once elected, Anneke and Abi often tagged along to Montepelier. They sometimes roamed free in the building and once fell asleep on the steps to the Statehouse dome. 

“All of his energy was either for the Legislature or for us,” Anneke said.

Jewett was part of a wave of Democrats elected to the House in the early 2000s, helping them return to power in 2005 after the state’s controversial civil union law cost them the majority in the 2000 election. 

Years later, Jewett was a key part of the marriage equality battle when the Legislature legalized same-sex marriage in 2009, Smith said. Vermont was the first state to codify marriage equality by legislative action, after lawmakers overrode then-Gov. Jim Douglas’ veto. 

‘Energy and gusto’

Jewett served as assistant majority leader — a position better known as “whip” — in the House in 2011 and 2012, and then as majority leader for the 2013-14 biennium. He spent most of his 14 years in the Legislature serving on the House Judiciary Committee where he worked on restructuring the state’s judicial system in 2010. He also had stints on the House Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife Committee, and the House Government Operations Committee. Jewett spearheaded the redistricting process in 2012.

“His skills as a legislator were directly related to his personality and how he conducted himself,” said former Majority Leader Floyd Nease, who held the position prior to Jewett. Nease said that while Jewett would listen to opposing views, he was known to hold firm in his convictions — even when others in his party tried to gain his vote. 

Photo courtesy of the Jewett family

“When I was majority leader and I needed his vote, and when he made up his mind that he was a ‘no,’ turning him around was difficult. And I was not always successful at it,” Nease said. “For a majority leader, it's kind of a pain in the neck. But also … you’ve got to respect his integrity.”

Jewett’s convictions also showed up at home, where he often debated issues with his daughters around the dinner table and stirred political disagreements on Facebook, Anneke said. 

“He had, I think, a really strong sense of justice,” McKay Jewett said. 

While Jewett was majority leader, he secured a unanimous vote in the House in support of S.81, a bill that banned the use of some toxic flame retardants in furniture and products for children. At the time, Bloomberg Law referred to it as “the toughest flame retardant legislation in the nation.” Gov. Peter Shumlin signed it into law in June 2013. 

Even more than his various legislative achievements, what many colleagues remember first is Jewett’s distinct laugh. Smith described it as a “high-pitched and just sort of ‘hee-hee-hee’ kind of thing.” 

“He laughed with the same energy and gusto that he did everything,” Copeland Hanzas said. “You could hear him from two, three rooms away in the Statehouse.” 

Photo courtesy of the Jewett family

‘Go get ’em’

After Jewett left the Legislature in 2016, he co-founded Mad River Valley Law with Blomback. He kept a messy desk but always knew how to find whatever nugget of information he had jotted down on scraps of paper, Blomback said. He made a point of collaborating with real estate agents and paralegals as his peers, she said, and unlike many attorneys, never listed “esquire” after his name. 

After he left office, Jewett also dove into competitive cycling. Sometimes his professional and athletic worlds collided. Several clients recognized Jewett as “the guy on Strava,” Blomback said, referring to the app that tracks users’ biking and running distances and shows a public ranking.

In the past few years, Jewett podiumed in his division at the Breck 100 in Colorado, a 100-mile mountain biking race with a more than 13,000-foot elevation gain, and regularly ranked among top finishers in Vermont races. Outside of competition, he also enjoyed biking with his family and was known for setting a pace so strenuous it sometimes drove more casual cyclists to tears. 

“We are all very thankful for him pushing us, but there were for sure moments that I wanted to just give up and lay on the trail for the rest of my life,” Anneke said. 

Jewett, who survived an earlier bout with cancer prior to his more recent diagnosis, pulled off athletic accomplishments even in the midst of treatment. After he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in 2008, he continued cycling — competing in a triathlon soon after finishing a round of chemotherapy, Nease said. Just four months before his death, Willem, alongside members of his cycling team, his brother and his daughter, Abi, rode 100 miles and raised more than $20,000 in the Prouty, a fundraiser for Dartmouth-Hitchcock’s Norris Cotton Cancer Center.

Photo courtesy of the Jewett family

Jewett and Ellen McKay Jewett married in Ripton in June 2021. 

Jewett began the medical-aid-in-dying request process in December. But as his health declined, he continued to work, even in the weeks leading up to his death. He sometimes took client calls from doctors’ offices, Blomback said.

“He liked being involved in the deal,” she said. 

In the days preceding his death, Jewett told VTDigger he found the restrictions on aid-in-dying to be unnecessarily difficult to navigate, and he advocated for changes to the law that would make it easier for patients to use.

Jewett used the prescription to end his life at home, McKay Jewett said, where he was surrounded by about a dozen friends and family. Jewett asked his brother to “play him out” on the violin through his final moments. 

Just before he took the prescription, McKay Jewett asked him if he was ready.

“And he smiled, and he said ‘forza,’” McKay Jewett said. “Which is what they yell at Italian bike races. It means go, go, go get ‘em, strength. Forza.” 

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect the correct amount Jewett raised in the Prouty.

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Riley Robinson

About Riley

Riley Robinson is a general assignment and multimedia reporter, covering stories across the state in writing, photos and video. She is a graduate of Northeastern University's School of Journalism and first joined the Digger newsroom as a Dow Jones News Fund intern.

Email: [email protected]

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