The life of state Sen. Debbie Smith of Sparks was celebrated at a packed gym at Sparks High School where more than one speaker described the former PTA leader who rose to become an accomplished and well-respected legislator as selfless, kind and compassionate.
Family, friends, legislative colleagues, former public officials, lobbyists and acquaintances gathered at the gym on Sunday afternoon to pay their respects at a memorial service for Smith, who died a week earlier after a battle with brain cancer. She was 60.
Smith, a former member of the Lander County school board who was known as a champion of education, underwent surgery last February to have a malignant brain tumor removed, causing her to miss the first few months of the 2015 legislative session. She was warmly greeted when she returned to the capital in April.
“Selfless. That’s one of the many words that come to mind when you think about Debbie Smith,” Aaron Ford, minority leader of the Nevada Senate, said in his eulogy.
And that selfless attitude was readily apparent when Smith, a fellow Democrat, talked to Ford after she learned of her cancer diagnosis.
“As selfless as she was, she started apologizing to me and to the (Democratic) caucus,” Ford said. “She said that she had felt herself not being herself and was upset that she hadn’t been able to contribute as much as she wanted … Here she is with a life-threatening issue, and she is apologizing to me … Selfless. That’s what Debbie was.”
Barbara Buckley, former speaker of the state Assembly, recalled when Smith first came to the Legislature 16 years ago as a freshman and was “a little timid in Carson City at first.”
“We knew her dedication.” Buckley said. “We knew that she was the biggest supporter of parental involvement in schools that Nevada had ever seen.”
Noting how Smith grew into the lawmaking job after taking on a variety of assignments over the years, Buckley said, “By then the PTA-mom-turned-legislator was well known in the legislative building as one of the most accomplished legislators the building had ever seen.”
Buckley described Smith as “smart, tough, hardworking, principled, but yet so kind, so gracious, respected by all.”
“When you interacted with Debbie, you always felt better,” she said. “Whether it was her calm, her laughter, her humility, her intelligence, her commitment, her passion, her tenacity, she just inspired you to be better.”
Smith also remained herself, no matter the circumstances or the people she encountered.
State Sen. Ben Kieckhefer, a Republican, told mourners that he got “the strong sense we all knew the same person.”
“She was not one thing to one group and another to someone else,” he said of his colleague from the other party. “She maintained her character and integrity across all aspects of her life, and that continuity brought strength.”
Smith’s brother, Bruce Bilbrey, echoed that sentiment.
“If you met her in the grocery store or if you met here in the halls of the Legislature, you got the same Debbie,” Bilbrey said.
One of Smith’s keys to success, he said, was that “Debbie took good advice wherever she could find it.”
He said his sister also had another secret to success, which she explained to a new legislator who had quizzed her. “Her response was before I speak, before I act, before I respond …, I always ask myself one thing, ‘Will this make my mother proud?’”
Bilbrey also said his sister “was all in with everything she did” and would “outwork, outthink, outmaneuver….to get things done.”
Two of Smith’s children, Ian and Erin, also spoke at the service.
Ian Smith recalled a time as a boy when his mother remarked that he was “still marching to his own drummer.”
He said he later learned what she meant, and it changed his life.
“She gave me permission to open my mind and my heart and chase my dreams to the end of the world.”
Erin Smith praised her dad, Greg, who first dated his wife when she was in the seventh grade.
Her mom, she said, “meant everything to my dad.” And her dad “helped her every step of the way.”
“So I want everyone in this room to take all the love you had for my mom and now give it to my dad because he needs it right now.”