Sen. Ursula Jae Spears, a West Virginia senator for 12 years and a three-term member of the House of Delegates, departed this life Saturday, March 16, 2013, at her home in Elkins.
The Elkins legislator for 18 years established a record of firsts for women in state government. She was the first woman to serve as Senate Majority Whip and the first and only female to chair the powerful Senate Finance Committee.
Spears, wife of Col. Lawrence E. Spears, retired, U.S. Air Force career officer, and past West Virginia Deputy Commissioner of Commerce, who preceded her in death March 14, 1996, was a former reporter for the Cincinnati, Ohio, newspapers and radio and TV stations, WLN and WSAI.
Spears pioneered the participation of women in the legislative process. Elected in 1974 as one of only eight women to the one hundred-member House of Delegates, she saw, during her 18 years of service, the female membership of that body grow to nearly 25 percent.
In 1980, Spears was elected as one of only two women to the 34 member West Virginia State Senate. Two years later she was appointed Senate Majority Whip, becoming the first woman to hold a leadership position in either House. As Senate Finance Chairman in 1984-1986, she became the first and only woman to head the committee that puts together the budget for the state. She was also the first woman to sit on the Joint Committee on Government and Finance.
Particularly active in the health care field, Spears sponsored and saw enacted into law the first home health care bill and the first bills that provided help for hemophiliacs and for autistic children. She served for many years on the Statewide Health Coordinating Council, and was part of the steering committee which established the Hampshire County Retardation Center. She was one of three senators who wrote the bill authorizing the Rural Health Initiative. She served for a number of years as a member of the Visiting Committee (Advisory Board) for West Virginia University's College of Medicine.
A strong advocate for protection of the family farm, Spears served 14 years on the West Virginia University Visiting Committee for Extension and Continuing Education.
Active in promoting literacy for all West Virginians, Spears served several terms on the state board of directors for the West Virginia Branch, Literacy Volunteers of America and was state president for two terms. She was a member from its inception of the Governor's Literacy Council.
As a member of the Advisory Council for WNPB-TV, Morgantown, Spears became its chair for two years. She served as a member of the Advisory Commission of the Governor's Task Force for Children and on the Advisory Board for the West Virginia Women's Commission.
Sen. Spears also served for many years on the state board of directors for the West Virginia Foundation for Independent Colleges and recently was recognized for her contributions and support to Glenville State College, when that college named their board room in her honor.
An ardent advocate for veterans and the National Guard, Spears' bill for employing and training veterans - the first such legislation in the nation - brought her a national award from the U.S. Department of Labor and Veterans Affairs. She was the first legislator to receive the state Veterans Council award, and was named an honorary brigadier general in the West Virginia National Guard. She served for a number of years on the executive board for the West Virginia Employers Support Group for the Guard and Reserve.
Spears was honored by the governor of North Carolina with an environmental award for her work in protecting the West Virginia portion of the New River. She received awards from the Professional Educators Association and the West Virginia Association of Retired School Employees. She was named woman of the year by the National League of American Pen Women and by the Elkins Branch of the B.P.W. She received the Susan B. Anthony Award from the state organization of N.O.W.
Following her legislative service, Spears was appointed by the governor and the Supreme Court to the Judicial Hearing Board.
Spears served both as a regular and an honorary board member for the Elkins YMCA, having established the first continuous women's exercise program and nursery. She served for many years on the Randolph County Council for Human Services and is an honorary board member of Women's Aid in Crisis.
She is listed in Who's Who in America, Who's Who of American Women, Who's Who in the World, Who's Who in the South and Southwest, Who's Who in Politics, and Who's Who in West Virginia.
Her memberships included John Hart Chapter, Daughters of the American Revolution; Elkins Branch, Pen Women; American Legion and Veteran of Foreign Wars auxiliaries; Theta Sigma Epsilon, journalism honorary; honorary member Delta Kappa Gamma, teachers honorary; Alpha Xi Delta social sorority; and the First United Methodist Church of Elkins.
Surviving are four children, Katherine Jae "Kitty" Cooper and husband, Jim, of Charleston, Marsha Bruce Spears of Austin, Texas, Lawrence Michael "Larry" Spears and wife, Judy, of Raleigh, N.C., and James Westbrooke "Jim" Spears and wife, Ellen, of Elkins; nine grandchildren, Katherine Cooper, Patrick Spears, Hunter Duncan, Andrew Spears and wife, Tasha, Brooks Spears, Morgan Duncan, Logan Spears, Alex Spears and Lauren Spears; and one great-grandson, Anderson Spears.
Her long-term companion, John Brennan, of Shinnston, predeceased her in June 2012.
Born in Latonia, Ky., a daughter of the late James and Sylvia Fox Marshall, she graduated from Covington High School and attended the University of Kentucky.
The family will receive friends at Lohr & Barb Funeral Home of Elkins Friday from 5 until 8 p.m. On Saturday, March 23, Sen. Spears will be moved to the First United Methodist Church at Elkins, where Sen. Spears will lay in repose - an honor bestowed on state dignitaries - from 12:30 until 2 p.m. At 2 p.m., a funeral ceremony will be celebrated with the Rev. Dr. Basil A. Hensley and the Rev. Barry R. Moll officiating. Interment will follow in Beverly Cemetery at Beverly.
Condolences may be expressed to the family at www.lohrbarbfuneralhome.com.