She is remembered fondly as the "People's Joyce."
Close friends say Peabody state Rep. Joyce Spiliotis really appeared to know everyone by name -- from the thousands of constituents she represented in her hometown to the myriad of employees and colleagues at the State House.
"She never tried to bring attention to herself," said School Committee member Beverley Griffin Dunne. "She always put other people ahead of herself."
Dunne, recalling how Spiliotis would take calls from constituents at all hours of the day (or night), said she was just as "gracious" and "helpful" at midnight as she was at 8 a.m. She was also known to personally pick up groceries for anyone who couldn't make it to the store him or herself.
Spiliotis died early Thursday morning at Salem Hospital with her family by her side, including husband Richard Jarvis (initial reports said she was at home, but then an obituary confirmed she was in the hospital). She was 65. News reports say she had battled cancer, but largely kept her illness from colleagues, the public and even many close friends.
A statement issued Thursday morning by her family confirmed she kept her illness quiet, reports the Boston Globe. Spiliotis is survived by her husband, two daughters, two grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
“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,” the family said.
Spiliotis was first elected to the 12th Essex District seat in the House of Representatives in 2002 after serving as a Peabody city councilor for 10 years and Library Trustee for two. She was just re-elected, unchallenged, to her sixth House term earlier this month.
Spiliotis lived her entire life in Peabody and was a popular representative with her constituents, widely regarded as a tireless advocate for the average voter and those who did not often have a public voice.
"I am heartbroken. I've lost a friend, my family has lost a true friend and the city of Peabody has lost an incredible representative," said Dunne. "We've all lost a wonderful, wonderful woman. She has done amazing things for Peabody."
Dunne recalled how during one of the worse floods to hit Peabody several years ago, Spiliotis drove over to the high school to check in with elderly residents, in particular, who were displaced by the flooding and then went out and purchased groceries for them. When they were able to go home, she purchased groceries again for them.
"You've heard me talk a lot about Peabody Blue, well Joyce was part of that," said former Mayor Michael Bonfanti. He noted she grew up in South Peabody and served her hometown for years in many ways.
While Bonfanti didn't always agree politically with Spiliotis, they were always friendly and cordial with each other, he said -- something important in politics, but which he sees less and less of these days.
"There were a lot of things I respected about Joyce...she provided darn good constituent services," he said, adding she seemed to know all her constituents and often made personal calls to check in with them. "That was her strength."
"She would call City Hall and say Ms. Smith needs help, what can we do?" Bonfanti said. "She died too young."
"The 'Peoples’ Joyce' will be greatly missed not only as an outstanding public servant, but also as a terrific wife, mother and friend," wrote family friend and Jarvis' co-host on "You Make the Call," Bob Croce on his blog "Eye on Peabody."
Croce called Spiliotis a "legendary public servant."
One of his favorite stories, he said, was one Jarvis told him years ago about a seemingly never-ending reconstruction of a bridge near Wilson Square. He said one particular night, workers were still using some loud machinery at the jobsite around midnight and in clear violation of their work permits.
"As I recall the story, Dick says that, after Joyce got call from a neighbor complaining about the noise, she sprung out of the house still in her nightgown, bathrobe and slippers, and drove down to Wilson Square to tell them to either shut it down, or she was calling the Police Department,” Croce said.
Dunne said she first met Spiliotis years ago through working in the court system -- Dunne is a lawyer and Spiliotis was a clerk at Salem District Court at the time -- and they just became closer friends when Dunne entered the world of local politics on the School Committee. Spiliotis was by then on Beacon Hill.
Dunne said they stayed in close touch and Spiliotis would regularly check in on education issues to stay up to date on any local concerns and see how she could help. Dunne said she often personally checked in with Spiliotis at the State House when she was in Boston and found that Spiliotis really did know everyone by name.
Longtime School Committee member Dave McGeney told a similar story, although back then Spiliotis was still a city councilor when he first got on the committee. He said he was fortunate to meet Spiliotis and become political allies and friends.
"She was the consummate elected public official," McGeney said – responsive, a champion for people who needed a public voice, ever ready if someone needed help and she always spoke her mind.
McGeney said Spiliotis had two qualities, which are usually unhelpful for a lengthy political career – she was candid and opinionated.
"She spoke her mind clearly and you always knew where she stood," he said.
“Joyce Spiliotis' life has been defined by service to others. Having known her for decades, back to her time at the Salem District Court, I know she performed her public service just as she did her service in the State House -- with courtesy and respect for her co-workers, litigants, victims, the judiciary and the public at large,” said Congressman John Tierney.
"Patrice's and my sincerest condolences go to her husband Dick and her extended family as well as friends and supporters. As a dedicated representative who passionately represented the interests of her community and constituents, Joyce will be missed by many,” Tierney said.
John Slattery remembered Spiliotis as a "savvy, dedicated public servant" and a "straight shooter" who never backed down or stopped fighting for Peabody.
"She was fierce in her pursuit of what she thought was right for Peabody," he said. "She was fiercely loyal to her constituents and that stood her well."
Slattery came onto the City Council with Spiliotis at the same time in 1994. He said they moved in the same campaign circles and supported each other over the years -- Slattery soon went on to become Peabody's state representative and then Spiliotis succeeded him in the seat when he made an unsuccessful bid for Lieutenant Governor in 2002.
Slattery said, more importantly, Spiliotis "was a great friend" and she will be sorely missed.
Council President Jim Liacos said he and Spiliotis served together on the council for one or two terms and considered each other friends.
"I think people respected Joyce," he said. “She was always very close to her constituents, her people, her supporters.” He added that she likewise stayed in close touch with local officials when she went to Beacon Hill.
“We seemed to be on the same side politically an awful lot," Liacos said, noting they campaigned for each other. "She will be greatly missed."
State Rep. Ted Speliotis, who is related to Spiliotis through marriage, said "the People's Joyce" fits her better than any other characterization.
He said no matter the climate on Beacon Hill or the issues being discussed, she never lost sight of how her decisions and votes would affect her constituents -- "How what she was doing would affect Joe Smith on Main Street."
"Her heart and soul was there, always fighting for the little guy," Speliotis said.
"I have known Joyce as a caring friend and trusted colleague for many years. As a city councilor and state representative, Joyce was a tireless advocate for her constituents. Her determination on their behalf was the hallmark of her career in public service – one which leaves a lasting legacy," Mayor Ted Bettencourt said.
Bettencourt joined the council in 2003, filling the vacancy left by Spiliotis' seat when she was elected to the House.
"She was really someone who would go to bat for anyone," he said.
Close friends say they were surprised to learn the tragic news that Spiliotis had died, knowing that she was ill to some extent, but not suspecting how serious it was. In one way, it was surprising in light of how open Spiliotis was with most other aspects of her life with family and close friends.
Liacos said several months ago Spiliotis actually was staying at Rosewood Nursing Home, recovering from a hip operation two doors down from his mother. He said she never let on that she was ill otherwise.
Speliotis said he knew she was struggling in recent days and weeks, but did not realize the severity of Spiliotis' illness either. He said it was uncharacteristic of her not to be more forthcoming, but understands at the same time that she may have wanted to keep some aspect of her life, which was very public by virtue of the job, private.
Dunne said she found out on Wednesday Spiliotis was in the hospital and likewise unaware of how ill she had been.
"Knowing Joyce, that doesn't surprise me [that she didn't tell anyone]," Dunne said. "With her own life, she tried to keep things quiet...she never tried to bring attention to herself."
Dunne said Spiliotis' focus was all on helping other people. "This city has really lost a good champion."
Visiting hours and funeral services for Spiliotis will be held Sunday and Monday. You can find her obituary and funeral arrangements here.