Years ago, I was sitting in a legislative committee room, waiting for the hearing to begin, when Pat Rothermich yelled across the room, "Hey, Lois, I like your shoes."
I glanced down and noticed, for the first time, that I was wearing an unmatched pair, clear to the fact that one was flat and the other had a heel. I have no idea how I managed to get all the way to the Capitol without noticing — or falling flat on my face. I'd like to think it happened because I'm not a morning person and the hearing was to start at 7:30 a.m.
Secretly embarrassed, I tried to shrug casually as I said, "Hurt my ankle. It's the only way I can walk."
"Oh, you poor dear," she said with what looked to me like a devilish glint of humor. I could tell she wasn't buying it. After that, she always asked how my ankle was. And I paid a little bit more attention to what I was doing as I dressed in the mornings.
Rothermich, who died last week from injuries sustained when she was run over as she was walking near her home, was a high-profile staff member in the Division of Child and Family Services back when I covered the Human Services beat for this newspaper years ago. We talked often about family preservation policy and worker productivity issues and what the state was trying to do to curb child abuse and "parent the parents" who needed better skills to cope with the responsibility of having children.
Sometimes we commiserated. Sometimes we argued, never with rancor, but occasionally with considerable heat. She was fiercely irritated once when I tried to get details — without any names — on a case that she felt was none of my business. I disagreed, because I believe publicly funded agencies have to be held accountable to the public, regardless of how noble their purpose is supposed to be. And while she saw herself as a guardian protecting children, I saw myself in a valuable watchdog role, as well. I was fiercely irritated that she kept trying to block my efforts.
Most of the time, we were cordial, but our jobs would never have allowed us to truly be friends.
I couldn't help but respect her, though, for her fire and her determination. She was passionate about children and thought there was no higher calling than taking care of them. She was adamant about the need to err on the side of protecting those she believed were truly both vulnerable and powerless. And in the time that I knew her best, she always described herself not as a caseworker or program manager or regional director, but as a child advocate.
When I changed beats, I'd still occasionally bump into her and we'd have the 15-minute catch-up conversation.
I remember thinking, the last time I saw her, that she was one of those women who only get more interesting and vibrant as they age. By that time, she'd retired from state government and started a second career as a chaplain at Primary Children's Medical Center. She'd become more centered, she told me, and had found a way to help children and their families at a whole different, but no less important, level.
She was lucky, she told me, because she'd been given lots of opportunities to make a real difference in the lives of not only children, but entire families — her own and so many others.
As the story of her untimely passing unfolds, I hope that the essence of the woman herself won't get lost in the details of what happened.
I, for one, intend to remember her quirky sense of humor and her dogged determination to do what she thought was right, even when it was unpopular. It's a way to honor a woman of honor.
Deseret Morning News staff writer Lois M. Collins may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org