Yesteryears: Emily Couric - The Daily Progress: Lifestyles

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Yesteryears: Emily Couric

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Posted: Sunday, December 30, 2012 6:00 am

A misty April rain was falling as Emily Couric beamed a welcoming smile at a newspaper reporter standing on her door stoop.

The man remarked how fortunate she was to have such a lovely open space next to her turn-of-the-century home on Rugby Road. Couric agreed and said it was a favorite play area for her two sons.

It was 1992, and the reporter was there to talk to Couric about her new book, "The Divorce Lawyers." The ensuing interview/conversation went smoothly, thanks to two major reasons.

The first had to do with Couric's geniunely warm personality, which made complete strangers feel as if they'd known and liked her for years. The other had to do with her being a professional journalist, and knowing how to frame insightful, well-rounded answers to questions.

At the time of the interview Couric had yet to venture into politics at the state level. While her children were growing up, she was content to serve the community for six years as a member, and later chair, of the Charlottesville School Board.

The woman with the radiant smile also used her intellect, talent and energy as a full-time freelance writer specializing in lawyers and subjects pertaining to the law. Her stories appeared in top-line publications such as the National Law Journal and the American Bar Association's monthly magazine.

Couric was born June 5, 1947, in Atlanta. Her mother, Elinor Hene Couric, was a writer. Her father, John Martin Couric, was an executive and news editor for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the United Press in Washington D.C.

The family moved to Arlington in 1951. After graduating from Yorktown High School in 1965, Emily Couric continued her education at Smith College, where, in 1969, she graduated magna cum laude.

Couric's younger sister, Katie Couric, made her mark as a television journalist, co-hosting NBC's "Today" and later anchoring "CBS Evening News."

Emily Couric became widely known as the popular Democratic state senator of the 25th Senate District, which includes Albemarle County.

The proud mother of two tossed her hat into the political ring in 1995 when she challenged Republican Sen. Edgar S. Robb for his job. Robb, a former FBI agent, had strong support, and it didn't look as if his challenger had much of a chance to unseat him.

The doubters might have paid closer attention to what former Virginia Gov. Gerald L. Baliles had to say about Couric's innate political prowess. Baliles, Couric's political mentor, said she possessed, "an impressive political style and grace, a competitive spirit and a razor-sharp mind."

All those attributes helped Couric win the election by capturing 50 percent of the vote. She then went on to become one of the hardest-working senators Virginia ever had.

Couric had tied her campaign to the issue of education. One of the successful bills she sponsored after being elected was the creation of an advanced mathematics and technology diploma that high school students in the state can earn.

Medical issues also became a focus for the senator. She successfully championed a bill to mandate insurance coverage for colon cancer screening, and another to start a brain injury neurotrauma program.

In the often bare-knuckle tempest of big-league politics, Couric deftly worked both sides of the aisle. Her bipartisan approach got things done and made her friends regardless of party.

As the world neared a new century, Couric was well into her second term as state senator and a likely choice as the next lieutenant governor. Her name was often connected with the phrase "political rising star."

Then on July 20, 2000, Couric unexpectedly alerted media outlets that she would be making an announcement in a downtown law office. With grace, poise and courage, she delivered a message that caused the guts of hardnosed journalists to seize.

"Yesterday, I learned that I have cancer of the pancreas, and that this cancer has spread," Couric said. "My doctors, family and I are now working on designing the best course of treatment to address this cancer."

Couric said she would remain in the Virginia Senate, but she was ending her exploratory campaign for lieutenant governor.  She and her husband, Dr. George A. Beller, head of the cardiology division at the University of Virginia Medical Center, knew the diagnosis was tantamount to a death sentence.

According to the American Cancer Society, the relative survival rate for people with the disease is 20 percent for one year. Five years out, that rate drops to 4 percent.

Couric went to war with a disease that brings progressive weakness, weight loss and pain. Despite punishing rounds of chemotherapy that drained color from her face and left her arms bruised and red from needle punctures, she continued to do her job in Richmond.

In the fall of 2000, she volunteered to take over the Virginia Democratic Party and give it a much needed new life. Her own life was irretrievably ebbing away.

The end came Oct. 18, 2001. The 54-year-old woman who many believed one day would  be governor of the state died in the home she loved.

One political writer said Couric had given politicians a good name. Her name is now affixed to the Emily Couric Clinical Cancer Center at UVa, because of all she did to obtain funds for cancer research and treatment in the state.

On Oct. 22, more than 1,000 people filled Charlottesville's St. Paul's Memorial Church and the lawn surrounding it for Couric's memorial service. Person after person spoke of her compassion, undaunted spirit and drive to help others.

When Katie Couric spoke, she told the mourners that her older sister didn't like constantly being asked if they were sisters. Then she spoke directly to her big sister.

"I just want you to know I will always be proud to say, 'I am Emily Couric's sister.' "

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