Jean Ankeney, senator and activist, dies at age 83

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

Former state Sen. Jean Ankeney, a stalwart liberal who co-authored Vermont’s landmark education funding reform law, died Saturday. She was 83.

Ankeney became ill about six weeks ago, said her daughter, Chrys Ankeney Smiley. Ten days before she died, doctors found that she had a form of lung cancer. She died late Saturday night with members of her immediate family at her bedside.

Ankeney worked tirelessly for less fortunate people, both as a legislator and in her personal life, said family, friends and Senate colleagues.

“For everything Jean did, it came down to taking care of the kids, taking care of the poor, taking care of people who needed taking care of,” said Sen. Susan Bartlett, D-Lamoille County, who was first elected to the Senate along with Ankeney in 1992.

Reached at her mother’s St. George home, Smiley remembered Ankeney as a woman who passionately supported many causes, sometimes long before they were widely popular.

“She always acted on her beliefs,” Smiley said. “As she once said to me ‘my life is my prayer.’”

Ankeney was born March 29, 1922 while her missionary parents were in China. She grew up in Shaker Heights, Ohio, a Cleveland suburb.

Ankeney raised three children in Cleveland, before moving to Vermont in 1975. She worked for numerous liberal causes and served as chapter president for Common Cause before running for the state Senate in 1992. She was re-elected to four more terms before finally stepping down in 2002.

Ankeney was among the Vermont Senate’s most liberal members. She supported gun control, early childhood programs and universal health care.

But it was perhaps on education funding that she made her biggest mark. She was one of the authors of Act 60, the state’s controversial education funding reform. The law required property tax-rich “gold towns” — Williston was among them — to pay into a pool that was used to fund schools in less affluent towns.

The measure prompted outcries from the gold towns while being lauded by towns with fewer means to educate their children. The law was later superceded by Act 68, but a mechanism to equalize education funding among school districts remains in place.

Bartlett said Ankeney’s support for Act 60 came not out of concerns about property tax rates. Instead, Bartlett said, “she thought every child deserved an adequate education.”

Ankeney was unwavering in her support for Act 60 even after other politicians switched positions on the measure. Bartlett said her Senate colleague was equally unwavering in her support for other causes she believed in.

“If something cost $20 million, and it got only $2 million in funding, she’d be back the next week asking ‘where’s the other $18 milllion?’” Bartlett said.

Yet Ankeney’s strong views were leavened by a personal charm and modesty, Bartlett said, so she seldom provoked the kind of animosity often seen among political opponents.

“She was a lady,” Bartlett said. “There are lots of women, but almost no ladies left anymore.”

Ankeney’s activism for liberal causes and commitment to social justice extended far beyond the Statehouse in Montpelier. During her years in Cleveland, she helped bring a library for children to a nearby underprivileged neighborhood and advocated for sex education in public schools, Smiley said.

Over the years, Ankeney worked as a public health nurse nurse, a teacher and a teacher’s trainer. She also served on numerous local advisory boards and committees.

Friends fondly recalled her St. George homestead as a gathering place for people from all walks of life.

“I loved to go out there,” said Nancy Williams, who knew Ankeney in Cleveland before she relocated to the Burlington area years after Ankeney moved to Vermont. “I met a lot of people through her.”

Fran Stoddard, a Williston resident who hosts two Vermont Public Television shows, “Profile” and “Vital Signs,” also knew Ankeney in her Cleveland days. Stoddard was a school-age friend of Ankeney’s daughter, Cynthia, before becoming friends with Ankeney after moving here.

“Jean was an inspiration to me because she was so committed and focused on causes and impassioned politically,” Stoddard said.

Ankeney is survived by her son, Jay Ankeney Jr., of Manhattan Beach, Calif.; daughters Smiley and Cynthia Jean Ankeney Bingham of Ipswich, Mass.; and three grandchildren, Jordon Michael Smiley, Dana Grace Bingham and Christian Hunter Bingham.

A memorial service will be held on Sunday, May 22 from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. at Ankeney’s St. George home.