Emily Couric: One year later
Nestled within the Woolen Mills village, Riverview Cemetery is set on a hill overlooking a ribbon of the Rivanna River winding behind Pantops Shopping Center. Walking here, one can hear the traffic on Interstate 64. Yet it is peaceful: with nearby Monticello Mountain to the East, the Blue Ridge is barely visible in the West.
Near the center of this cemetery is Emily's grave– a stately granite memorial flanked by a pair of small rectangular stone containers holding red and white geraniums. Shaded by a nearby Cedar of Lebanon tree reaching out its branches like arms, the memorial stands in front of a mature boxwood hedge. The pungent scent of the boxwood endures.
Emily's struggle with cancer ended last fall just as we collectively began to grapple with how to live in the world after the events of 9-11. One of the greatest tributes to Emily is that so many people felt the loss of this remarkable woman. The manner in which she engaged people and politics may be her greatest legacy, and it is certainly the lesson she leaves me still to ponder.
It was also autumn when I, a third-year law student, met Emily, who had just published her book on women lawyers. On a local attorney's recommendation, I invited her to speak to the UVA Law Women about what made women lawyers successful. I don't remember her words, but I do remember her full-of-life smile and her ease in talking with the women. Relatively new to town, she was soon appointed to the School Board and became a "public figure."
After my own election to the City Council, Emily became School Board Chair. The school superintendent had given school and city officials copies of Within our Reach by Lisabeth Schorr, an optimistic but pragmatic book describing successful approaches to dealing with the educational, health, and social needs of the most deprived children. I joined Emily one afternoon at her house on Rugby Road where we drank tea on the porch and talked about the book, education, and Charlottesville's children.
"Can we really make a difference ?" she asked. She was committed, she was analytical, and she was interested in what I thought. We were both optimistic.
Working with the School Board, I quickly discovered more of the Couric charm. At one meeting, Emily supported an increased appropriation of several million dollars for school renovation. She looked at me with that smile and said, "You've been so supportive of the public schools. I assume we can count on you to approve the funding ..." It was difficult not to concur on the spot and give Emily everything she wanted. She had a way.
When Emily left the School Board in 1991, I thought she was tired of public service and, given the demands of public office, who could blame her? But within a year or so, with another book on lawyers published, Emily was exploring a run for the state Senate seat. She contacted me, and I agreed to call several political friends on her behalf and also to introduce her to Democratic senators in Richmond.
One was a colorful former sheriff from a rural area, who asked Emily to meet him in the parking lot at Shoney's, then located in Albemarle Square. As she got out of her car to go into the restaurant, she heard a voice shouting her name, and the driver in a nearby parked Cadillac motioned her over. She immediately realized that the appointment would be conducted in his automobile. She got in the passenger seat, where he interviewed her for an hour. She got his endorsement and wholehearted support. Emily was adaptable.
In Richmond, the venue was not Cadillacs but busy legislative offices during the session of the General Assembly. I recall asking a Senate Democratic leader if he would meet with her. "Can she win?" he asked unsmiling. "I think so," I replied, "and I know you'll like her and be impressed." He was.
But before that meeting I protectively told Emily, "I'm nervous about introducing you because I'm afraid he'll try to take over, get the special interest money guys involved and make you promise things you shouldn't." I thought I was the pro and Emily the novice. The truth is, her political instincts were far superior to mine. And besides, Emily was incorruptible and naturally agile. She couldn't be conned into positions she didn't want to take.
Going door to door with Emily was also an interesting experience. During her last election, we spent an hour or so in my neighborhood.
"Oh, you look just like your sister," said one neighbor, a retired nursery school aide. "I watch her every day on the Today Show."
Emily smiled that great Couric smile. Some political friends said they thought Emily must feel envious of her famous sister. But as Katie said at the funeral last year, "The truth is I've always been and forever will be so proud to say, 'I'm Emily Couric's sister.'"
Emily entered the Senate in 1996 with two other women Mary Margaret Whipple and Patsy Ticer and the three of them immediately had an impact on the committee overseeing environmental matters. Their thoughtful and articulate questions transformed it from a hostile climate for conservation to a committee open to passing important legislation.
The first year Emily was in the Senate, I worked with her on a bill that gave citizens notice of water pollution permits that would affect them. Even though she was new to writing laws, Emily took the language the legislative staff had drafted and crafted it further. Later, when she developed legislation to protect citizens' wells from leaking storage tanks, a legislative staff member described her as "dogged, tenacious, and persistent."
When she was ill, he reflected on their work together. "There were times," he wrote, "I feared picking up the phone knowing it might be you asking how the bill was coming along or whether all the agencies were in line and supporting the legislation. I woke up deep into the night in a cold sweat thinking I might have left something out which I knew you would catch and ask me why it wasn't in there."
It was true: where many legislators attempted merely to manage the flow of bills, especially their own, Emily was thorough and thoughtful. While others hurried through their visits with constituents and lobbyists, Emily seemed relaxed even when she was ill.
As an environmental colleague said, she was probing and thorough, but she was charming, in the very best sense of that word. She listened to you and she made you feel that what you had to say was important. And even when she disagreed with you, she disagreed in a respectful and gracious way.
A few of Emily's closest colleagues and friends have joked that she was perpetually late. Yet despite the many appointments I had with her, I don't remember her tardiness. Maybe that's because in both substance and charm, she was worth the wait.