U.S. Sen Patrick Leahy acknowledges a standing ovation in the House of Representatives chamber at the Statehouse after a surprise joint assembly honoring his career in Montpelier on Wednesday. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

When U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., paid a visit to the Statehouse in Montpelier on Wednesday, he thought he would lunch with legislators and watch a typical House floor session.

Instead, he was met with a House chamber packed with all of the state’s legislators, along with Gov. Phil Scott and Lt. Gov. Molly Gray. All had gathered in the same room for the first time in more than two years for a surprise ceremony to honor Leahy’s nearly 50 years of service in the U.S. Senate as he approaches his retirement in 2023.

When House Speaker Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington, began reading aloud the resolution honoring his “illustrious senatorial career,” Leahy turned suddenly with surprise to his wife, Marcelle Leahy, sitting beside him. She was in on the ruse, and patted his arm.

“Now, I’m not one for going over the top, but it’s not an exaggeration to say that Vermont would not be anywhere near what we are today without Senator Leahy,” Scott said on the floor. “While he’s physically in Washington, his heart is always here in Vermont.”

U.S. Sen Patrick Leahy, right, visits with Sen. Alison Clarkson, D-Windsor, in the cafeteria at the Statehouse. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

In a series of remarks, Scott, Gray, Krowinski and Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint, D-Windham, rattled off a laundry list of Leahy’s career achievements. The senator has secured billions in funding for Vermont through “small state minimums,” which ensure small states receive a basic level of funding for large federal programs. Speakers also highlighted Leahy’s work to establish the Farm to School program, which connects local farms with public schools to provide meals; his overseeing dozens of federal judicial confirmations; and his international humanitarian work to ban landmines.

But they also talked about the personal mark Leahy has left on their lives.

Scott reminisced about a visit to Washington, during which Leahy gave him a personal tour of the Capitol — the only time Scott has seen the whole building — and brought the governor onto the Senate floor.

Gray pointed to Leahy’s “small acts of kindness and giant acts of leadership,” like the thousands of personal letters he has penned for Vermonters — often with a photo attached — “to celebrate achievements and also to console a terrible loss.”

Balint said that when her wife was diagnosed with a similar form of cancer that struck Marcelle, Leahy called to offer support.

Balint said she could “go on and on and on” about Leahy’s legislative achievements, but “it’s actually about something much larger than that.”

“It’s about the fact that Sen. Leahy sees us, really sees us, as Vermonters, what we do and how we struggle, and how we love our communities,” she said. “That is going to be the lasting legacy, is that Sen. Patrick Leahy always saw us.”

U.S. Sen Patrick Leahy, left, visits with Sen. Dick Mazza, D-Grand Isle, at the Statehouse cafeteria. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Wednesday’s resolution was unanimously passed by the House. Among Leahy’s congressional achievements, it also honors the senator’s expansive collection of photographs that “form an extraordinary congressional archive”; his appearance in five Batman movies, the royalties from which he has donated to Montpelier’s Kellogg-Hubbard Library; and his 60-year wedding anniversary with Marcelle, “the love of his life.”

For Leahy, Wednesday’s ceremony was a full-circle moment. In brief remarks, he recalled growing up down the street from the Statehouse in Montpelier. As a tot, he climbed around in the gardens and pedaled his tricycle down the building’s hall, straight into the governor’s desk. 

The building was “10 times bigger” back then, he quipped.

The ceremony “just brought everything home,” he told VTDigger afterward. “It meant more to me than I can say.”

U.S. Sen Patrick Leahy leaves the House of Representatives chamber at the Statehouse after a surprise joint assembly honoring his career on Wednesday. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

VTDigger's political reporter.