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Betty Nuovo recalled as a relentless advocate

BETTY NUOVO DURING her tenure as a state representative for Middlebury. Independent file photo/Trent Campbell

MIDDLEBURY — Betty Nuovo gave a lot of herself to her community, state and country.

So it seems almost fitting that she would exit this world on July 4.

Nuovo, who died last Tuesday at age 91, is being recalled as a dutiful, kind and meticulous lawmaker who proved a tireless advocate for marginalized Vermonters. A lawyer by trade and a humanitarian at heart, Nuovo’s keen eyes were often enlisted to scan legislation for any ambiguities, potential loopholes or just plain mistakes, and she was particularly outspoken in her support for same-sex unions, equal rights for women, the environment, and for services to lift up those in need.

 “The death of Betty Nuovo marks the end of an era in Middlebury and Vermont politics,” said state Sen. Chris Bray, D-Bristol. “With Betty, ‘democracy’ was a verb: an obligation to participate actively in our communities in order to make the promise of democracy real and tangible. When a challenging issue arose, Betty expected and encouraged us to take it on — especially when the subject related to the judicial branch of government or the environment.”

Nuovo’s public service career began right after she and Victor, her husband of 70 years, settled in Addison County’s shire town in the early 1960s. She joined the League of Women Voters and became active in the local Democratic party. Her service expanded to the Middlebury selectboard (1995-1998), the Addison County Regional Planning Commission, Middlebury Charter Committee, Middlebury Planning Committee, Addison County Chamber of Commerce and Addison County Economic Development Corp.

“She wanted to become a lawyer, but there was no law school, so she clerked with Peter Langrock, read the law, and passed the Bar,” Victor recalled. “She opened her own law office, and (current Addison County Probate Court Judge) Pam Marsh joined her.”

But she made her biggest mark in the Vermont House, representing Middlebury for a total of 30 years. The late Stan Lazarus persuaded her to run for the Legislature and she was successful, initially serving from 1981 through 1991 — during which she chaired the House Judiciary Committee.

Nuovo then took some time off before returning to the House in 1996 for another 20 years.

Her past friends and colleagues took time to remember Nuovo following her wake, held Friday, July 7. A memorial service in her honor has tentatively been set for Aug. 26 at the Congregational Church of Middlebury.

Rep. Robin Scheu succeeded Nuovo in the House. She and fellow Democrat Rep. Amy Sheldon now represent the shire town.

Scheu credited Nuovo for helping her campaign. She knew she had some big shoes to fill.

“I have many fond memories of how she supported me in my run for office,” Scheu said, noting Nuovo initially invited her to Montpelier to watch the Legislature in action, introduced her on the floor, and to other legislators.

“She was hugely helpful with my campaign — everything from telling me about the best way to place ads in the Addy Indy and how to knock on doors, to what size rubber bands to get to leave campaign materials on doorknobs. She always told me to knock on every door in a neighborhood, not just the Ds, because we represent all of our voters.”

That support continued after Scheu’s successful election. Fittingly, Scheu inherited Nuovo’s actual seat in the House chambers — No. 84.

“She was a coach, a mentor, and a friend,” Scheu said. “I shall be forever grateful for her presence.”

Like Bray, Rep. Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes, began her legislative career while Nuovo was still in office.

It was Nuovo who first encouraged Lanpher to run for the House — which at the time seemed like a tall order, given the GOP in those days had a tight grip on House seats representing northwestern Addison County.

“Betty was the force that organized the Addison County Democrats, when there was no county committee,” Lanpher recalled.

But Lanpher proved successful and is now the county’s most tenured House member. She currently chairs the House Appropriations Committee.

She credited Nuovo with, among other things, “always watching for opportunities to advance and strengthen democracy, especially for women.”

Lanpher added that Nuovo could be delightfully mischievous. She sat next to Nuovo on the House floor, and recalled the time when lawmakers were asked to not eat or drink at their seats. This rule didn’t go over well during marathon sessions, and gave rise to civil disobedience — from Nuovo, who with a sly grin would lift her desk cover and invite Lanpher to partake in the secret stash of snacks she had secreted there.

“It was that spark of childlike joy,” Lanpher marveled.

BATTLING INJUSTICE

But Nuovo wasn’t afraid to show her temper when she thought someone, or a group of people, were being treated unjustly.

Victor Nuovo recalled a time during the 1980s when his spouse, as part of the Judiciary Committee, was poised to introduce a bill to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment in Vermont. 

“This made (then-Gov.) Madeline (Kunin) nervous, because of a possible backlash,” Victor Nuovo said.

So to mute the impact of the then-controversial legislation, Kunin called a news conference on a less volatile topic. Kunin sent Nuovo an apologetic note stressing the “urgency of scheduling the news at just this moment,” according to Victor.

“It was hand delivered,” Victor said. “Betty read it and was asked if there would be a reply. She said, ‘Yes.’ And she wrote on the note “BS” and asked that it be returned.”

Victor and Bray both harkened back to 2000, when then-Fox News personality Bill O’Reilly, a conservative commentator, visited the Vermont Statehouse to interview lawmakers about civil unions legislation — a precursor to same-sex marriage.

“Bill O’Reilly and his Fox news crew ambushed a House member in the Statehouse cafeteria, taunting the representative with harsh, biased questions and accusations,” Bray said. “Betty, upon witnessing this, swept in like a mother bear and drove the reporter off. O’Reilly may have been a foot and one-half taller than Betty, but it was he who backed away.”

ALWAYS ACTIVE IN the public arena, Betty Nuovo continued to reach out to and educate the community even after she retired from the Legislature. Here she is seen on her MCTV show where she interviewed public officials and others in the public spotlight.

While state Sen. Ruth Hardy, D-Middlebury, didn’t serve with Nuovo, she’s aware of her many contributions.

Hardy was executive director of Emerge Vermont in 2016 when that organization awarded Betty its Public Service Award for her decades of service. Emerge Vermont recruits, trains and provides a network to Democratic women who want to run for office.

“In presenting the award, Gov. Madeleine Kunin emphasized Betty’s legacy of promoting gender equity, including her advocacy for the Equal Rights Amendment and legislation requiring that the Vermont statutes be gender neutral,” Hardy said. “Betty’s service has paved the way for more women, like me, to succeed in Vermont politics and for all women in Vermont to be afforded equal rights.”

While Nuovo’s service on the Middlebury selectboard was fairly brief, she made an impact there, according to former Selectman John Tenny, who chaired that panel at the time.

“I remember Betty as a guardian of the Town Charter, often calling the board to task if she felt that we were straying from the founding document’s intent,” he said. “In her service, she was a strong advocate for the people of Middlebury, working to improve the community for its residents. Her strong and cheerful support of Middlebury throughout her life will be her legacy.”

It will be a long lasting legacy, according to Bray.

Strong, caring, funny, and always on the move, Betty lived her life fully, and she will be missed by many,” he said.

Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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