Town clerk, treasurer and hero Deb Beckett dies

By Jason Starr

Observer staff

One of Deb Beckett’s many roles of service to the Town of Williston was holding a seat on the Tax Abatement Board. 

This is the board that hears requests for property tax forgiveness based on financial hardship or extenuating circumstances. Beckett, the longtime town clerk and treasurer, served on the board with other town leaders, like selectboard members and legislative representatives. But for her, the seat was more than a responsibility of local leadership. It alerted her to who in the community was struggling, and gave her an opening to help. 

“I can’t even count the numerous Williston residents she went out of her way to ensure were receiving all the breaks and benefits allotted to them,” said Sarah Mason, who has succeeded Beckett as town clerk. 

Beckett’s wife Toby Rockwood and children, Sean and Ellie Beckett, were together Tuesday in the home Beckett and Rockwood shared in Williston. Four days after Beckett’s death from complications of cancer brought on by exposure to toxic burn pits during a tour of duty with the Vermont National Guard in Iraq 10 years ago, the trio was hosting condolence calls and reminiscing about Beckett’s quiet, fierce spirit and multi-faceted social, civic and professional life.

Rockwood said that when Beckett couldn’t find the right resources to help a resident resolve a tax relief request, she would sometimes take matters into her own hands.

“She would comb every area to get overdue taxes paid, especially for veterans,” Rockwood said. “On a few occasions, she paid them out of her own pocket.”

The seat on the Board of Abatement was a small piece of Beckett’s involvement in Williston. She was a Boy Scout counselor, a participant in several committees at Williston Federated Church, a member of the American Legion and the local Rotary club, president of the community food shelf and a Habitat for Humanity board member. She also served on the Development Review Board, as Justice of the Peace and the Cemetery Commission.

Sean Beckett marveled that, with all she had going on, whenever he called to get together, she would be available. Earlier this month, Beckett officiated her son’s wedding. 

“I’m learning so much about my mother that I didn’t even know she was involved in, and I’m sure that will continue, ” Sean said. “Her love for her family and the community didn’t fall into one category.”

A native of Massachusetts, Beckett attended St. Michael’s College, where she was a member of the Reserve Officer Training Corps. That experience led her into service as a soldier with the Vermont National Guard. Her service included two wartime deployments: a 2004 tour in Kuwait and a 2010 tour in Iraq. 

Cancer developed in 2017, a result of exposure to toxic trash-burning pits at army bases in the Middle East. She became an advocate for fellow veterans seeking recognition for burn pit exposure from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Beckett continued to work in the town offices as she battled cancer with surgeries, radiation and chemotherapy. Mason, who worked under Beckett as assistant town clerk, described her as a guiding light in the town offices and among the statewide community of town clerks and election officials. 

“Deb always had an answer you could trust, guidance you could follow and words to believe in,” Mason said. “(She) has always been a true hero in our midst who has done more for the community than anyone else I know. She did it all selflessly, quietly, stoically and often times without any thanks or acknowledgement.   

“I do not even know how she kept up with all of her duties and responsibilities and also managed to be a fun, funny and active partner, mother, sister, aunt, daughter, neighbor, boss, mentor and friend.”

Beckett’s retirement last March was planned, but what wasn’t planned was the simultaneous deterioration of her health — and the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. Beckett attended her final Town Meeting in March, and accepted well wishes on her retirement. Despite worsening health, she also spent time at the polls the following election day. 

“She was so sick,” Rockwood said, “but she was not going to miss that Town Meeting.”

The pandemic made it impossible to have a proper retirement party in the spring. 

The Beckett family invites the public to a gathering in Beckett’s honor Friday, Sept. 4, from 5-7 p.m. at the Isham Family Farm barn on Oak Hill Road. Masks and physical distancing will be required and guests will be asked not to linger in the barn. The family is also plannwing a private service.

Next year, town officials plan to have a larger celebration of Beckett’s life during the annual Fourth of July festivities — one of Beckett’s favorite Williston events.