A Passionate Advocate

We’re gathered together in this chapelas mourners for Cheryl Hanna. Shall we celebrate her life or mourn her death? Today, we have the difficult task of doing both.

Today it is once again a chapel— a Greek orthodox church—a place where we seek solace, a place where we search for the meaning of life and—of death. And a place where we receive comfort.

We do not mourn alone.

Our very presence here, sitting shoulder to shoulder is a form of healing. We embrace one another as we wipe the tears from our eyes. Our collective arms go out to Cheryl’s family. We embrace you, each one of us, and all of us together— you have our love, our support, and an unlimited supply of hugs. Turn to us, not only today, but in the harder times ahead.

The depth of Cheryl’s loss is magnified by the breadth of her life. Her death leaves an enormous vacuum because she lived life large—with such joy, enormous energy, and great generosity. Everyone is here because in one way or another we have been touched by Cheryl’s life. Each of us sitting here can still see her face, her large eyes looking straight into ours and open to the world.

Always containing a spark of excitement. She was so much alive that it is hard to digest the reality of her death. It was so entirely unexpected it was truly “untimely”—a life half lived.

She was—and it is difficult to say was instead of is—at the prime of life. We ask ourselves questions— Why? And what if?

There are no answers. Not even in the black box that will remain at the bottom of the sea. No one—not even the scientists who study the human brain, can fathom the battles that take place in the human soul.

Cheryl had her demons, but she kept them under lock and key, hidden from us. She conquered them every time she changed a student’s life, every time she wrote an illuminating journal article on constitutional law, on domestic violence against women, and even when she graduated cum laude from Harvard Law School.

She was a brilliant lawyer and she used her brilliance well. To change the world. There is a Hebrew phrase, tikkun olum—that is our mission on earth—to heal the world. She lived by it.

Her world view focused on both the ordinary and the extraordinary. She was passionate about the Girl Scouts—learning how to sew while she was teaching the girls how to sew, serving as a Girl Scout leader and on the Girl Scout council. Reviewing her résumé, one can’t help but be astounded. Surely, she was overextended, surely she should say no sometimes—but that was her life—to extend herself to every nook and cranny where she could make a difference for women and children.

I can attest that she did say no once, to me, when I asked her to serve on the board of Emerge Vermont. But I easily convinced her to be on the Emerge advisory council. We had a mutual admiration relationship, Cheryl and I. She looked to me as a mentor, but frankly, she needed little mentoring. Still, I was there for her from time to time when she sought my advice and that of my husband, John Hennessey. But she inspired me in return, as she did so many of you.

One time, when she admired what I was wearing—and Cheryl liked to dress well—she told me she had walked into Marilyn’s clothing store in Burlington, and said, “I want you to dress me like you do Madeleine Kunin.”

When we look at the wide expanse of her life—one theme runs through it. She was a passionate advocate for women and girls—she took every opportunity to fight for women’s equality, to cut away the bonds that keep women down and build the platforms that raise them up. That was her inspiration and we—all of us—are the beneficiaries of her life’s work.

And now, it is our turn to carry on her cause. That is what Cheryl would have wanted, that is why her spirit is hovering over us. We can do it, in small ways and large—whether we mentor and befriend a young girl whether we testify before the legislature on paid sick days, or whether we applaud another woman for her courage. And that was Cheryl’s hallmark— she had the courage to speak, to take action, to take what she saw wrong with the world, and make it right.

We all have that capacity—let us grasp it in the memory of Cheryl Hanna, and create a living, breathing memorial to her—by fulfilling her dream—of full equality for all.