Rebecca “Becky” Lockhart, the first female speaker in the history of the Utah House of Representatives, has died of a rare brain disease at the age of 46.
Lockhart had been diagnosed 12 days before her death with Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, for which there is no treatment or cure, Utah state Senator and family spokesman Curt Bramble said Saturday.
Lockhart first began showing symptoms of the rapidly progressing disease two and a half months ago and was diagnosed on Jan. 5, Bramble and Lockhart’s physician said Saturday afternoon during a news conference at the University of Utah hospital.
Dr. Jennifer Majersik, a University of Utah hospital neurologist who treated Lockhart, said only about 300 people in the United States are diagnosed with the disease each year.
Majersik said a small percentage of the cases are inherited, but most develop randomly with unknown causes, as Lockhart’s case appeared to be.
The former speaker was discharged from the university hospital 10 days before she died at her home in Provo on Saturday afternoon, while surrounded by family, Bramble said.
Lockhart served in the House for 16 years, including the last four as speaker. She decided not to seek re-election last year, and her final term ended on Jan. 1.
Last year, she launched an unsuccessful bid to become state superintendent of public schools. She was widely considered to be a possible challenger for Gov. Gary Herbert, a fellow Republican, in 2016.
“I think she’s been Utah’s Iron Lady,” said an emotional Bramble, who along with his wife, was a close friend of Lockhart and her husband.
Before running for the Utah House, Lockhart earned a nursing degree from Brigham Young University and spent seven years as a registered nurse.
Her death prompted a flood of statements from top officials, including Herbert.
“Speaker Lockhart was a tremendous public servant who … made history as Utah’s first female House speaker,” the governor said. “While she was first and foremost a wonderful wife and mother, she was also a remarkable role model, particularly to the untold numbers of women who were inspired by her example to be involved in public service.”
Speaker Greg Hughes, a Republican, said that even before Lockhart’s illness, lawmakers had planned to honor Lockhart’s legacy in the House on the first day of the legislative session on Jan. 26. “It makes this occasion as we get ready for our session much more somber and sad for us,” Hughes said.
Hughes said Lockhart’s commitment to education, economic development and the state’s transportation infrastructure would be felt for generations.
Leaders of the Utah Republican and Democratic parties also issued statements hailing her.
“Speaker Lockhart was an icon, a role model, and a stateswoman at a time when too many are focused on politics,” state Democratic Chair Peter Corroon said. “All Utahns could count on her to listen and ensure that everyone had a seat at the table.”
Survivors include her husband, Stan, three children, her parents and four siblings.
“The family’s actually had the last several days to say goodbye to her,” Bramble said.