Durham was a sadder place on Monday as people mourned the unexpected death of Laurie Stevens.
News travels fast in a small town and word of Stevens’ sudden death in the wee hours of Sunday morning spread rapidly among the people who knew and loved her—and there certainly are many of them.
Stevens fell ill at home late Saturday night. Although she was rushed to hospital, she died a few hours later with her husband and mother by her side. The cause of her death is still not known but it took everyone by surprise.
“She was in fine health,” says Bob Fulton, her husband of more than 30 years. “She was 60 and had some health issues but nothing serious, nothing life imperiling. It was a total surprise.”
Indeed, just that Saturday Stevens had been celebrating the planting of four trees in front of the Durham Public Library. As a member of the Durham Garden Club and president of P.A.L.S. (Public Association of Library Supporters), Stevens could reliably be found either at the library or in the garden.
“That was a typical Laurie day,” says her friend, Durham Tax Collector Martin French. “If she got to help others and garden, that was all the good rolled into one.”
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An Active Life
Stevens wasn’t born in Durham. She grew up in Westport, where she graduated from Staples High School and then went on to study at Goddard College in Vermont. In 1986, the couple moved to Durham and it's been their home ever since.
To say that Stevens was an active member of the Durham community is an understatement. Stevens helped organize the Durham Fair and, as P.A.L.S. president, she was involved in running the Spelling Bee, the annual book sale, and she organized the Taste of Durham, the library’s largest fundraiser fondly known as the “town party”, with the precision of a general.
“She was one of our biggest library supporters,” says Cyndi Shirshac, assistant director of the Durham Public Library. “A few years ago with the Taste of Durham the ball got dropped and Laurie said she’d do it on short notice and she has done a superb job. I just can’t imagine the Taste of Durham without her.”
Shirshac says she and Stevens shared a love of books and gardening. With her husband, who is a member of the Board of Education, Stevens shared a passion for politics and a strong sense of civic duty. Stevens served as past president of the Democratic Town Committee and was recently reelected to the Board of Finance. Stevens was well-suited to that particular position.
For 26 years, Stevens worked in leather goods manufacturing plants in Connecticut. She began her career in purchasing and cost analysis and ended up as plant manager and vice president of operations for a men’s belt factory and import business. After leaving the business, she used the skills she’d acquired to help many the organizations for which she volunteered.
“She was the type of volunteer everybody wanted and was a real asset to each of the organizations,” says French. “I think there’s going to be a real hole in the heart of these organizations.”
Friends and Memories
Although Stevens volunteered for many different organizations, there’s little doubt that the Durham Library was closest to her own heart.
“You don’t know the library without knowing Laurie,” says Durham Library President Valerie Kilmartin. “The whole community is losing a vital resource and a dedicated community activist, and I’ve lost a friend. She was that to so many people. When she offered help, she meant it. She’d go to the store for you if you were sick, take you to doctor’s appointments. She was always there for you.”
Now that she’s gone, Fulton says, he’s been overwhelmed by just how many people have called to tell him what his wife meant to them.
“We had no children but what we do have is this larger family,” says Fulton. “I’ve gotten calls from people I didn’t even know she knew. The outreach to me personally has been enormous. All the people who have been touched over the years by her work and all those folks are reaching back to me. It’s been overwhelmingly positive for me. Without that, I don’t know what I’d do.”
Fulton says his wife never wanted to have a wake or a funeral, so there will be no visiting hours, just a simple cremation.
“That’s a decision that Laurie and I spoke about on various occasions in the context of living wills, but I do have a desire to have some sort of celebration of her life and I’d like to do that a community setting sometime in the reasonably near future,” says Fulton.
Instead of sending flowers, Fulton asks that people who wish to honor her memory do so by making a donation to P.A.L.S. People who want to share their memories of Stevens, meanwhile, may do so by writing in the memory book that the Durham Public Library is providing as of today.
“We’ll all so miss her,” says Kilmartin. “She touched so many lives in so many ways and enriched them all.”