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Woman Killed in Crash Praised for Her Work

  • Laura McNaughton in an April 2017 photograph. (Nancy Nutile-McMenemy photograph)

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 7/2/2018 11:42:17 PM
Modified: 7/3/2018 12:48:00 PM

White River Junction — People will be gathering Tuesday to memorialize a woman who they credit for making a significant contribution to public health in the Upper Valley in a short career.

Many of those who knew and worked with Laura Cody McNaughton, a 36-year-old Perkinsville resident who died last Thursday in a car accident on Interstate 91, are mourning her loss, but they also are celebrating her work.

“This is a lifetime of accomplishment in such a short amount of time,” said Melanie Sheehan, regional prevention program manager at Mt. Ascutney Hospital and Health Center in Windsor. “She really was wise beyond her years.”

Sheehan was one of many people that McNaughton worked with during her career in public health.

At the time of her death, McNaughton was the White River Junction district director of the Vermont Department of Health, a role she had held since 2013, according to a LinkedIn profile. In that role, McNaughton oversaw several programs, including the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program; immunizations; school health; maternal and child health; and substance abuse prevention. Separately, she also was a member of the Public Health Council of the Upper Valley, the Weathersfield School Board, the related Windsor Southeast Supervisory Union Board and the Holt Foundation Board in Saxton’s River.

“She was just present in so many places and in so many ways,” said Sara Kobylenski, executive director of the Upper Valley Haven.

Kobylenski said her path often crossed with McNaughton, starting in 2012 with work related to ReThink Health, a project spearheaded by Elliott Fisher, director of The Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy & Clinical Practice, which brought together Upper Valley leaders to brainstorm ways to address high health care costs.

Since then, Kobylenski said she worked with McNaughton and her staff in addressing a range of issues, including emergency management, workforce wellness, the WIC program, smoking cessation, substance misuse, oral health and breastfeeding.

The Haven relies on many elements of the Department of Health’s work to support its clients and its staff, Kobylenski said.

“Her role is vital to us,” she said.

On a more personal level, Kobylenski, who is poised to retire this fall, said she appreciated McNaughton’s energy and intelligence.

“When you get to my age … one of the things that we have to do is trust and hope in the next generation,” she said. “We’ve got to go with that belief that really the generation coming up behind us are wiser and smarter, and will make things better.”

Kobylenski noted that McNaughton, the valedictorian of Springfield High School’s class of 2000, and her husband, Ethan, had returned to Vermont to raise their family and to work.

During the time away, McNaughton earned a bachelor’s degree at Bates College in Maine and a master’s in public health from Boston University.

Kobylenski and others had planned on McNaughton being one of those current and future leaders. McNaughton’s untimely death left Kobylenski wondering: “What kind of rhyme or reason the world had for this one.”

While people who worked with McNaughton remembered her for the quality of her work, they also remembered her for her personality and leadership style.

“Laura was a profoundly kind person, who spent every day doing whatever she could to improve the health and quality of life of every single person in her community,” Todd Perry, director of field operations at the Vermont Department of Health, said in an emailed statement. “...We were all touched by Laura’s personality and contributions, and the Health Department will support Laura’s co-workers and community in continuing her work as we navigate the shock and sadness we all are feeling.”

McNaughton’s kindness also stood out to Jill Lord, director of community health at Mt. Ascutney Hospital and Health Center.

“She just had a sense of grace about her,” Lord said. “She was always willing to jump in, lend a hand.”

Lord recalled an instance where Mt. Ascutney held a youth summit on substance misuse and they were short a note-taker.

“She just jumped in helped us taking notes at the event,” Lord said. “Nothing was beneath her.”

In meetings relating to prevention efforts at Mt. Ascutney, Sheehan, who also is a Perkinsville neighbor to the McNaughtons, said McNaughton would calmly steer a conversation back to what data was telling them.

“She was very gentle about keeping us on track,” Sheehan said.

At one point, the state stopped funding for individual prevention efforts and replaced it with a regional grant to be shared by the organizations.

“It was very contentious in the beginning,” Sheehan said. But McNaughton “found a way to shepherd us through a process where folks felt heard.”

McNaughton helped to navigate similar disputes among leaders of health and social service providers in Orange County during monthly meetings of the Randolph Executive Community Council.

“Sometimes in groups like this you tend to get the issues for kids, issues for older people,” said Beth Stern, executive director of the Central Vermont Council on Aging. “They can kind of clash.”

But McNaughton served as a bridge.

“She was very inclusive,” Stern said. “She was always ready to work with ideas around older people or around children. One was not more important than the other.”

Hartland resident Regina-Anne Cooper worked with McNaughton at the Department of Health, first alongside her and then as McNaughton’s employee.

Cooper remembers McNaughton most for the role she played in helping to develop a plan to reduce suicides at the Quechee Gorge Bridge. Cooper’s son, Derek, died at the gorge on July 4, 2011, at the age of 21.

After Derek’s death, Cooper said she faced the decision of whether to sue the state for wrongful death or figure out a way to prevent deadly falls at the gorge.

On the latter front, McNaughton was “instrumental from day one,” Cooper said.

McNaughton gathered letters of support and offered to testify before the Legislature.

“She was just a person — as a friend and as a colleague — if she said she was going to do something, she would do it,” Cooper said.

Given the amount of work McNaughton took on, as well as her roles as a board member and a mother to two boys, ages 8 and 3, Cooper said she wondered, “Where does she find the time because I only have 24 hours in my day.”

McNaughton’s response to that question was that she was just very organized, Cooper said. She showed Cooper her filing system, which included past, current and future projects.

In addition to being forward-looking in her work, she had the same approach with her employees. Cooper credits McNaughton with helping her to get a better job. Cooper now works for a regional Medicare subcontractor.

“She also wanted to see me do the best in my career,” Cooper said.

Cooper last communicated with McNaughton on Wednesday, the day before McNaughton’s death. McNaughton had missed a meeting about the Quechee Gorge Bridge, and she asked for an update. After Cooper sent her one, she wrote back and said, “What’s the next step?”

“It was always, ‘What can I help with?’ ” Cooper said.

Tuesday’s memorial gathering will take place at 2 p.m. in the conference room on the first floor of the State Office Building on Prospect Street in White River Junction.

Additionally, a celebration of life will be held at the Weathersfield meeting house on Saturday afternoon, beginning at 2 p.m.

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.

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