“No one’s perfect, but I try to do what I know in my heart is right.” —Rebecca Lockhart, October 13, 2014
In 1997, when Rebecca Lockhart was twenty-nine years old, she was elected to the Utah House of Representatives to represent the people of Provo. She would remain in this position through 2014—a career of public service that spanned sixteen years. Over the final four years of her time as a legislator, she was the first woman in the state of Utah to serve in the highly influential position of Speaker of the House.
Her original career aspiration was to become a biology teacher; but just prior to going to college, a seed was planted that would grow and blossom many years later in a way that she didn’t expect. When she was a student at Highland High School in Pocatello, Idaho, the football team pulled a prank on rivals Pocatello High School by turning the “P” on the mountainside into an “H.” They did it in such a way that it was easily repairable, but the local paper turned it into something more malicious, accusing the pranksters of doing damage. Rebecca knew the true story and was appalled at how the paper published such an inaccurate article and that they didn’t get the facts straight. She decided to “right the wrong” by writing a letter to the editor giving him the facts. She liked how it felt to get it off her chest, to have her voice heard, and to say her piece. This moment of having her voice heard—and, by extension, the voices of those involved—would later be a major element in her political career where she would be remembered for making sure all voices could be heard.
Rebecca was born in Reno, Nevada on November 20, 1968. At the time, her father was in graduate school. Because of her father’s work in the Forest Service, she spent her childhood living in various places around the western United States, including Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, Idaho, and finally Utah. She was the second of five children, with an older sister, a younger sister, and two younger brothers. Rebecca recalled fighting with her sisters over clothes and shoes and other kinds of sister things. Growing up, only one of the daughters in the family could have their own bedroom, so they rotated every six months, twelve months of sharing and then six months of a room to themselves. Despite moving every three to four years, her parents kept their family life consistent and stable. Rebecca grew to be adaptable; she was good at making new friends and adept at dealing with change.
Early on, Rebecca loved learning. Rebecca’s parents both received an education which set an example for her to follow. Her father worked for the Forest Service in Range Management and his career was focused on animal science and botany and, as a result, she felt drawn to science and nature. As a child, she remembered watching a lot of “Nova” and “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.”
She consequently loved school growing up and would pretend to be a teacher while her friends would act as students. As she progressed through her school years, she wanted to be in student government, but had a lot of failures and wasn’t elected to anything until her senior year in high school when she ran for Student Body Activities Director and won in the absence of an opponent.
Prior to that, when she was in seventh grade, she decided to try out for the cheerleader squad. Not only did she make the squad, but the cheer advisor selected her as the captain. The advisor told her, “You know, you’re going to be a great leader.” She then followed that up by saying, “But you need to smile. You don’t smile a lot. You need to smile.”This is something that stayed with Rebecca most of her life. Even during her time as Speaker, her chief of staff would lean over and tell her, “Don’t forget to smile,” before she would get up to speak.
As she grew, she developed leadership skills from her experience in the cheerleading squad, but she never really considered herself a leader. Regardless, her mother always thought of her as a leader. A couple of years after she was elected to the State Legislature, her mother told her, “I always knew you would do something like this; I just knew. Just from growing up, you were the one that was going to do something like this.”Her mother was one of her role models growing up. Rebecca’s mom had a university degree in Spanish but also had a great love of biology and science which she passed on to her daughter. Rebecca continually looked up to her mother.
There were many women Rebecca admired during her early years. Beyond her mom, she also admired her sisters. As a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, she had a lot of influential church leaders. Her Primary and Young Women leaders were really the only other women in her life along with a couple of notable school teachers: Mrs. Tamson, her junior high school English teacher, and Mrs. McCoy, her high school Advanced Placement biology teacher. These women helped Rebecca know from an early age that she should go on to college. She recalled, “It was just part of the plan; that’s what happens is you graduate from high school and you go to college.”
COLLEGE, MARRIAGE, AND FAMILY
After graduating from Highland High in Pocatello, Rebecca made the move to Provo, Utah to attend Brigham Young University (BYU) on a Presidential Scholarship. Her parents dropped her off at the dorm, helped carried her belongings into the room, gave her a hug, and then drove off. She didn’t know any of her roommates. All she knew was that there were supposed to be six of them and she was the first one to arrive. She unpacked, sat on her bed, and cried. All she could think was, “Oh no, I’m alone. Now what do I do?” She felt a little scared and apprehensive, but she had a distinct feeling that she needed to grow up and learn how to be independent. She did, and had a very successful year of college.
After her freshman year, she went home to Pocatello for the summer and worked as a waitress at a couple of different restaurants. At the end of August, she took her earnings back to Provo and was able to live off-campus at University Villa for her sophomore year. The first Sunday back at school, she went to church and met Stan Lockhart. They started dating and were married just eight months later in April, 1988.
When Rebecca first started at BYU, she was focused on becoming a biology teacher. Shortly after her marriage to Stan, the two of them had a discussion about what she could do as a career—something where she could make the most difference. They decided that she should pursue a profession in nursing. Rebecca changed her major, took the necessary chemistry and physics courses, and graduated in nursing.
A year before she completed her nursing degree, they celebrated the birth of their first child, a daughter. Their little family grew over the years with the addition of another daughter and a son. After becoming a mother and practicing as a nurse for seven years, a new career path started to emerge for Rebecca.
Early on in their marriage, Rebecca and Stan felt it was important to contribute to their community and to be involved. They had a good friend who worked on campaigns and he invited them to come to a campaign kickoff. Their initial reaction to the invitation was negative. They thought that it seemed kind of crazy and that it would not be for them, but they went anyway. The campaign was for a senatorial race. It was held in a school building, and there was a Dixieland band, balloons, and a lot of conversation about political issues. At the end of the evening, they left very impressed and excited. Rebecca recalled thinking, “That was really cool, we really liked that.”
After that experience they decided to get involved at a grass roots level. That seed that was planted back in her senior year of high school was now starting to sprout. They got involved with the local Republican Party and ended up doing a lot of menial volunteer work—such as blowing up balloons, setting up chairs, printing flyers, and sitting on committees. It was all very tedious work. Eventually Rebecca became the party’s legislative district chair. When the representative seat in the State Legislature for Provo opened up, Rebecca expressed a desire to run. She and Stan discussed whether it might be right for their family. It was something that she was really interested in doing, so they came to terms as a family with her going ahead with pursuing the seat.
Rebecca felt that, “women bring some unique perspectives and abilities to any profession,” and that it is “to the advantage of any company to have a diversity of abilities and opinions in leadership roles” but that isn’t what motivated her to pursue the representative seat. “I believe a person should be elected for their [policy] positions and skills, not because of their sex.” It was that seed again—planted back in high school and sprouting as she started to participate in local politics—that seed started to grow. It developed in her the desire to not only have her own voice heard, but to ensure that the voices of all her constituents would be heard as well. She loved the institution of the legislature and had great faith in the process. She now wanted to be actively engaged in getting the process accomplished.
As she started her career as a representative, she had to learn the logistics and the routine of being a legislator. She needed to know everything from where the bathroom was to how to write a bill. She found it very helpful having an intern to assist her. A fellow woman legislator also taught her how to go about reading through the bills every night. Rebecca patterned a lot of what she did as a legislator based on what she learned from that friendly legislator who helped orient her to life in the capital as a representative.
As she learned the job and became more active with her colleagues in the process of legislating, she began to find her niche and to let her political passions influence her agenda. One important piece of legislation that Speaker Lockhart was associated with was in response to the Utah Compact, about which she stated, “We all believe in the American dream, and we’ve always believed, you know, the Statue of Liberty. Come here and live the American dream and—but we want people to do it legally. And something’s wrong with the legal way. It’s not working as it should.” As Speaker, she was passionate about several issues and wanted Utah to be strong. One statement that helps relay the vigor in which she led as Speaker is from 2011 when she challenged her colleagues by asking, “Are there instances where the federal government intrudes on our state government? Is Utah willing to tell the federal government to go away when it oversteps its authority? I believe together we can find answers to these questions.” She proved to her fellow representatives that she wasn’t afraid to take her own advice.
Speaker Lockhart wasn’t just willing to take on tough issues between Utah and the federal government, she was willing to do so right here at home—even within her own party. A prominent news story in Utah during 2014 was the indictment of the then current Utah Attorney General, John Swallow, and his predecessor, Mark Shurtleff. Speaker Lockhart felt very strongly about the integrity of government, about honesty, accountability, and about the process. During her term as Speaker, the ethical issues that had plagued the Attorney General’s office had to be addressed; so the legislature established an investigative committee. In her words, “The House of Representatives had never done that before. The legislature had never done that before.”She stated that the allegations were serious, and that it was a challenge given that those being investigated were from her own Republican party, but she said, “I knew it was the right thing to do. I knew we needed, the people of Utah needed, to have some answers, and it was the House that could provide [them].”
As Speaker, she had a unique eloquence that allowed her to inspire her fellow public servants. In one her opening statements at the beginning of the 2014 legislature’s annual session, she motivated all those present in the chamber by encouraging them to “make this session busy and brimming with big ideas, about schools, about our lands, about our way of living, about our quality of life,” and also stated, “Let’s be committed to the higher purpose of the common good.”
PASSIONS AND INTERESTS
The love of learning drove Rebecca to read a lot, mostly history and non-fiction. Rebecca loved the political process and in her own words, “will never apologize for it.” She loved being part of the process, making it open, available, and interactive. She described herself as a policy “wonk”—stating that she loves to debate ideas and come up with solutions to problems and challenges. She believed all ideas are worthy of debate and desired to have all voices heard before decisions are made.She liked to be direct; in her first term as Speaker in 2011 she said, “We face real challenges. We must address those challenges head-on.”
While it wasn’t necessarily an explicit focus of hers, she did want women to succeed and not hold themselves back; “The challenge is getting women to understand the valuable contribution they can make that would be welcome; it’s encouraged. If they choose to do it, we should support them.”
She, herself, was a woman of faith and loved her family. In her opening day remarks in 2014, she referred to the families that were present as “treasured family”—a term which really reflected her feelings toward family. In those same remarks she made a statement that is somewhat of a motto of hers: “Honesty in government, trust in our institutions, belief in the system, and faith in the process.”
In addressing policy, Rebecca demonstrated a love of education and described it as “a public trust we share with all our children and all of society. And Utah is blessed with the most involved parents and most committed teachers in the country. But while our commitment to education is as strong as ever, commitment is not enough. Reliance on the ways of the past will not meet the needs of our children today, or properly prepare the leaders of tomorrow.”
Rebecca loved being a member of the legislature for sixteen years. She wanted to be remembered as a person who “loves the process, and who trusts it. Who’s not afraid of ideas. Who’s not afraid of debate, who wants every voice heard—even if they’re the smallest minority.” She proved this by reaching across the aisle to those of the Democratic Party and asking them to, “Please tell me if you ever feel like you haven’t had your opportunity.”
Rebecca Lockhart went beyond loving and trusting the legislative process to loving and trusting the life process. She believed that there is a plan for life that people may not see and she trusted in divinity to provide her guidance. She has continually demonstrated this foresight in her life—from her plans early on in life up to her decision to end her time as Speaker.
As she was growing up, she moved from place to place but adapted and found stability in her family and with her parents. She trusted in the fact that going to college was the right thing to do despite how lonely she felt at first. She trusted in the institution of marriage as she met and then married Stan. She trusted in making a career decision that caused her to change her major and graduate as a nurse. She trusted in her ability to be a loving and caring mother by having children. She trusted the desire she felt to be a public servant by going outside her comfort zone and running for the state legislature. She had a love for serving and trusted the assessment of others that she could be the Speaker of the House. When she felt that it was time to step away from that phase of her life, she trusted that it was time to move on and to find out what is next.
What came next was not what she was expecting. In November of 2014, a few weeks after leaving office, Rebecca fell ill—complaining of dizziness. By January, she was hospitalized in critical condition and diagnosed with Creutztfeldt-Jakob’s Disease, a rare and fatal brain disorder. On January 17, 2015, Rebecca passed away at home surrounded by family and friends. Three days after her death, her family accepted the Utah County Medal of Honor on her behalf and plans were announced to build a memorial in her honor.
In the end, Rebecca kept her promises and will get her wish to be remembered for her passion. In her 2014 opening statements, Rebecca said, “When I sought this post, I promised no ambition to be the most powerful Speaker in Utah history … just the most empowering.” According to Senator Deidre Henderson, Rebecca did just that: “”She wasn’t interested in being in power for the sake of being powerful. She was interested in finding solutions to problems, and she understood that no one person had all of the answers. She was very good at empowering the people around her.”
For more information on The Utah Women’s Walk and to learn about other honorees, please visit the Utah Women’s Walk website.