When Rep. Stan Smedley learned he wasn't going to survive cancer, he asked his wife Ann to take his seat in the Utah House of Representatives.
"I asked him, `Do you think it was something I could do?' and he said, `You bet.' That did it."He died two days later.
Gov. Norm Bangerter appointed Smedley to the Legislature and, less than six weeks after her husband's death, she began what veteran lawmakers are calling one of the most difficult sessions in recent memory.
The Legislature has approved a controversial anti-abortion bill believed to be one of the most stringent in the country. The House censured Rep. Dionne Halverson, an Ogden Democrat who had pleaded no contest to a shoplifting offense. A week later, Halverson resigned. Meanwhile, House and Senate members have been scrutinizing the methods by which the state assesses real property and whether changing the method would result in higher property taxes for everyone. "After last week I went home and said `I quit! I quit!' I have really been initiated," Smedley said, forcing a weary smile.
The 49th Session of the Utah Legislature has been grueling for veterans. Smedley, who was thrust in the midst of the madness less than two months after her husband's death, describes it as "a real challenge."
But serving in the Legislature has been a catharsis of sorts, she said. The demands of being a legislator have kept her busy, so busy that she is at times so exhausted she quickly falls asleep when she arrives at the family's Bountiful home after a long day on Capitol Hill.
"It's only been two months. I'm still in a mourning period. Instead of going home and crying, I go home and sleep," she said.
Assistant Majority Whip Christine Fox, R-Lehi, knows Smedley's pain. She was appointed to the Legislature in 1987 after her husband Merrill was killed in an accident on the family's farm in Lehi.
Unlike Smedley, Fox had been involved in Utah County Republican politics before her husband's death. She had helped him run his campaigns and she was the party's area chairwoman.
Though two of the Foxes' six children were barely old enough for elementary school when their father died, they urged their mother to assume her husband's seat in the Legislature. "After Merrill died, it was kind of a heritage thing. They wanted Mom to come to the Capitol," she said.
Since then, Fox has been twice reelected, and this year she was elected to the leadership of the Republican Party. Although it has been difficult to balance her home life, politics, school (she's a senior at the University of Utah) and then manage her interests in the family dairy farm and a convenience store, Fox said serving in the Legislature has helped her cope with the loss of her husband.
"It's been a real benefit for me personally. It really helped me to work through that grief so I could go on. It forces you to rebuild your life," she said.
"I could never imagine an atmosphere that has more love and support," Fox said. "They genuinely care for you. You're probably never so vulnerable and tender and hurt."
At the same time, there was a natural tendency for fellow lawmakers, constituents and lobbyists to compare Fox to her husband. Fox said she cringed each time she was introduced to someone and they said something like "Oh, you're the one whose husband died."
"I was really intent on developing my own style and being my own person up here," she said.
Fox and Smedley are among eight women who were appointed to the Legislature after the deaths of their husbands. More than 100 women have served in the Legislature since 1897, when Democrats Sarah E. Anderson and Eurithe LaBarthe were elected to the first Legislature, said Carole E. Peterson, chief clerk of the Utah House of Representatives.
Aside from assisting her husband with his three successful campaigns and answering constituent phone calls, Smedley said she was content "just to be a happy little homemaker.
"A good friend told me, `You just have to remember this is Ann's seat. You're pushing those buttons. You're not sitting here for anyone else."
She seems to have adjusted well to her new position. Her nights are spent reading, catching up on new bills and position papers.
"There's a big loss because Stan isn't here. All I can do is just get by," she said. "I can't fill his shoes. I can never try. I wish he were here and not me."
Asked if she would run for re-election, Smedley said she does not plan beyond tomorrow. "I'm just taking this one day at a time. My initial plan is I'll just get through this," she said.