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Willem Jewett helped enact Vermont’s death-with-dignity law; then he needed to use it

Former House majority leader had ‘a beautiful death,’ his family says

Willem Jewett in Iceland in 2019. Credit: Ellen McKay Jewett

When Willem Jewett played a key role in enacting Vermont’s death-with-dignity act in 2013, he was the Legislature’s House majority leader and in remission from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, though he barely broke stride for the cancer.

An avid cyclist, he kept taking long rides and competing between treatments. “He really powered through it,” said his daughter Abi.

Then in November 2020, three years after leaving the Legislature, Mr. Jewett was diagnosed with mucosal melanoma, “a particularly nasty form of cancer, I am told (I am trying not to read much about it, frankly),” he wrote.

This time, he needed to make use of Act 39, which allows terminally ill Vermonters to seek medical assistance in dying if a physician decides death is certain within six or fewer months.

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“It’s given me peace of mind all the way through,” he said in an interview a couple of days before he died on Jan. 12, at 58, in his Ripton, Vt., home in a room with his wife, two daughters, close friends, and his brother, Joe, playing violin during his last minutes.

“At the end of the day, the patient really needs to have control,” he said of Act 39 in a final interview that Patient Choices Vermont, an advocacy group, posted on YouTube. “And if it’s between, sort of, public policy and patient control, let’s side with the patient. I’m proud of this one. It’s a good bill.”

But he learned it wasn’t perfect as he navigated Act 39′s safeguards, such as mandatory in-person doctor visits that are challenging for the seriously ill, particularly during a pandemic. So he began lobbying for changes.

“He just summoned all the strength he could, and it was very like him to go out still advocating for something he believed in,” Abi said. “He always included other people in the journey. It wasn’t just about him.”

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Vermont’s Legislature is considering making changes, including requesting an end-of-life prescription by telemedicine.

Lobbying for such fine-tuning wasn’t all that Mr. Jewett did in his final year.

Months after his diagnosis, he completed a 100-mile bicycle ride last July for The Prouty, a fund-raiser for initiatives at Norris Cotton Cancer Center at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H.

Mr. Jewett personally raised more than $17,000 of his team’s total, which topped $22,000.

That fund-raising and his advocacy to improve Act 39 were a coda to a quarter-century of public service in Vermont.

Elected to the Ripton School Board in 1998, Mr. Jewett ran for his local House of Representatives seat in 2002 as a Democrat and served in the Legislature from 2003 to 2017, including as House majority leader in 2013 and 2014.

As a member of the House Judiciary Committee, he helped secure passage of a bill legalizing same-sex marriage in 2009, when the Vermont Legislature became the first state in the nation to do so without a court order, said Shap Smith, who was then House speaker.

He said Mr. Jewett also was instrumental in helping meld the House and Senate versions of the death-with-dignity law legislation that became Act 39.

“Not only was he a very good legislative tactician, but he was also a very skilled draftsperson,” Smith said. “And those two skills really made him an effective majority leader and legislator in general.”

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Mr. Jewett’s sense of humor served him well, too, as did his laugh — “a high pitched hee-hee-hee kind of thing,” Smith recalled.

“You knew immediately who it was when you heard Willem’s laugh,” he said. “You could hear it down the hall in the speaker’s office when he was in the cafeteria. He just found humor in many things.”

The younger of two brothers, Willem Westpalm van Hoorn Jewett was born on Aug. 23, 1963, in Larchmont, N.Y., and grew up in Westport, Conn.

Mr. Jewett was a young boy when his father, Joseph Jewett, a chemical engineer, died of colon cancer.

His mother, Marianne van Hoorn, remarried Nicholas Liberatore and later started the foundation Music for Youth in Westport.

When the Jewett brothers were young, their family bought a vacation place in Waitsfield, Vt., where the boys launched many of their adventures, including bicycle rides that could stretch as long as 200 miles.

Mr. Jewett graduated from Loomis-Chaffee School in Windsor, Conn., and received a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Bowdoin College in 1985.

After a few years of coaching skiing and other outdoor endeavors, he went to Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Ore., graduating in 1994.

Settling in Vermont, he worked at the Conley & Foote law firm in Middlebury from 1994 until 2017, when he cofounded Mad River Valley Law in Waitsfield with Jenn Blomback, a paralegal.

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“Willem was very much what we call a main-street lawyer, and by that I mean people felt comfortable just walking in and asking questions,” she said.

Their firm was very busy during the pandemic’s real estate home-buying rush, and he kept pace despite the cancer diagnosis.

“I don’t believe he ever once told a client of his situation with his health,” Blomback said. “He didn’t waste any time. It was a very full 58 years.”

In 1992, Mr. Jewett married the artist Jean Cherouny, and they had two daughters: Anneke, who lives in Winooski, Vt., and Abi, of Hanover, N.H.

“I’m so astonished at the exuberance that he had for being a father and how he just loved it so much,” Anneke said. “It made him so happy to see us grow and become adults.”

Mr. Jewett’s first marriage ended in divorce and he and Ellen Blackmer McKay became a couple in 2018.

They became engaged in November 2020, two weeks before he was diagnosed with mucosal melanoma (“I had a stuffy nose, except it wasn’t,” he wrote), and married last June.

Mr. Jewett, Ellen said, was “one of those people who you meet and you just want to be around. He had incredible charisma, and positive energy just radiated off him.”

In addition to his wife, two daughters, and brother, Mr. Jewett leaves three stepchildren, Eleanor McKay Workman of Hartland, Vt., and Kate and Ian McKay, both of Middlebury, Vt.

The family will announce a memorial gathering when COVID-19 restrictions are eased to allow larger groups to assemble.

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Joe Jewett, a professional violinist, cherished the times he spent with his brother cycling and skiing.

“I was always kind of chasing him a little bit in my mind,” Joe said. “He was the person against whom I measured myself.”

On Jan. 12, as Mr. Jewett took the medicine to end his life, “he asked me to play him out,” said Joe, who chose a passage from Bach’s Violin Sonata in G Major.

“It has a kind of methodical pulse to it, like it’s going somewhere,” he said. “And it has a lot of gravitas, for sure. And it has this harmonic architecture for the world beyond our ken, so it seemed appropriate.”

An acquaintance familiar with Mr. Jewett’s cycling exploits once remarked that he seemed superhuman, “and that’s a perfect way to describe him,” Anneke said.

As cancer curtailed his energetic life, he channeled what she called his “stronger than human” presence into improving Act 39, all the way up to the day he chose to die.

“I know it’s weird to call death amazing, but it was sort of an amazing death,” Anneke said.

“We all wish and hope that we could have such a beautiful death, surrounded by a dozen people who love you dearly, and your brother playing the fiddle beautifully. And it was just peaceful. Without Act 39, that wouldn’t have been possible.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.