PEABODY — Rep. Joyce Spiliotis, a Peabody native who had represented her hometown in the Massachusetts House of Representatives since 2003, died of cancer yesterday morning at the age of 65.
Yesterday, local leaders remembered Spiliotis for her fierce commitment to her constituents and work on local issues, such as Peabody’s notorious flooding problems. Politicians across the region — from Speaker of the House Robert DeLeo to Peabody Mayor Ted Bettencourt — commended her life and service to the community.
Longtime state Sen. Fred Berry, also a Peabody native, praised Spiliotis for her “hands-on approach to politics.”
“She was the rare pragmatic politician who used her votes to take care of real people,” Berry said. “She will be missed by those folks she worked so hard to help.”
Gov. Deval Patrick ordered all flags at state buildings lowered to half-staff yesterday in her honor. Bettencourt ordered the same for Peabody’s city buildings.
Her passing, announced in the House’s informal session yesterday morning, left the entire Statehouse “shocked,” said Rep. Ted Speliotis of Danvers.
Rep. John Keenan of Salem said Spiliotis never mentioned her illness, even as he gave her rides home from recent Statehouse sessions.
“I’m as shocked as everybody else to learn (of her death). None of us really knew she was that sick,” Keenan said. “That’s part of who she was: a very strong individual, a straight shooter and fighter for her constituents.”
She leaves her husband, Richard Jarvis, and two daughters. The Spiliotis family declined to speak to the media yesterday but issued this statement:
“Joyce was a public figure, but a very private person. She fought her battle courageously in private, as she fought publicly for issues important to her constituents. This is a painful and personal time for us. We will have no further public comments, and appreciate the thoughts and prayers of all who loved her as we did.”
A Peabody High School graduate, Spiliotis served on the Peabody City Council as a councilor-at-large from 1994 until 2003, when she became a state representative. She was a Peabody library trustee in the 1980s.
Spiliotis was elected in 2002 to represent the House’s 12th Essex District and was unopposed when she won re-election earlier this month. Previously, Spiliotis worked in Salem District Court as an office supervisor and union steward.
Yesterday, Congressman John Tierney said Spiliotis’ life “has been defined by service to others.”
DeLeo and Secretary of State William Galvin will set a date for a special election to fill the remainder of her two-year term. For the near future, legislative aides will answer phones at her office and handle day-to-day matters, according to DeLeo’s office.
Spiliotis served as vice chairwoman of the Joint Committee on Municipalities and Regional Government, the Joint Ways and Means Committee, the Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure Committee, and the Global Warming and Climate Change Committee.
Yesterday, a number of Spiliotis’ Statehouse colleagues said her legacy will be her commitment to her constituents. Not only did she know most of Peabody’s senior citizens, said former Mayor Michael Bonfanti, she knew them so well she could name their hairstylists.
“She has been supportive of people and their concerns as long as I can remember,” Bonfanti said. “Her heart has been in the city of Peabody.”
Spiliotis was instrumental in securing funding for work to address Peabody’s flooding problems, as well as numerous other city and school projects, Bonfanti said.
Bettencourt said she was a great support to his efforts to have a new middle school built in Peabody. She also advocated for funding for cleanup work at Crystal Lake in West Peabody and the Aggregate Industries neighborhood.
“She was at every neighborhood meeting,” Bettencourt said. “... Her passing is a tremendous loss to this city.”
Speliotis recalled one of her slogans: “Joyce is the people’s Joyce,” a play on the phrase “people’s choice.”
“That says it all about Joyce,” Speliotis said.
Ipswich Rep. Brad Hill remembered Spiliotis’ work for funding of the Route 128 construction project and her fight for seniors’ issues, including health care.
“That is her legacy: the warmth she had for every citizen that called that office, to ensure they got the help they needed,” said Hill, who also gave Spiliotis rides home from the Statehouse. “She was always full of life and laughter. ... Joyce would always bring a big smile to your face.
“I will deeply miss our rides home together.”
Relatives and friends are invited to her funeral service, which will be held in St. Thomas the Apostle Church, 1 Margin St., Peabody, on Monday at 10 a.m. Visiting hours are scheduled for Sunday in the O’Donnell Funeral Home, 46 Washington Square, Salem, from 2 to 6 p.m.
Bethany Bray can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @SalemNewsBB. Material from the Statehouse News Service was used in the article.