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    Friday, January 27, 2023

    Former state legislator, Commissioner on Aging Edith Prague remembered for advocacy, empathy

    Marge Wilson, left, of Gales Ferry listens as Democratic state Sen. Edith Prague discusses privatizing Medicare following a cookout and picnic July 27, 2011, at the Ledyard Senior Center in Gales Ferry. (Abigail Pheiffer/The Day, FILE)
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    Former state legislator and Commissioner on Aging Edith Prague, who died Thursday at age 96, was remembered for both her empathy and advocacy, particularly in championing the rights of the elderly and workers.

    “Edith Prague is the jewel of eastern Connecticut," Gov. Ned Lamont said in a statement. "She is a legend, whose feisty and caring personality will never be forgotten. She was as compassionate as she was bold, and through her entire life had an energy that was nothing short of infectious. Edith absolutely left her mark on Connecticut.”

    Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz remembered Prague as a "fierce and outspoken advocate for seniors” as a state senator and "a powerful voice for workers — walking picket lines into her 90s.”

    “As commissioner of the Department on Aging, she was unafraid to speak truth to power, no matter the consequences,” Bysiewicz said in the statement. “Simply put, she was a model public servant.”

    Prague, who was born in Methuen, Mass., learned from a young age the importance of reaching out to others, according to her online obituary.

    "When Edith's father died when she was a young girl, she worked alongside her mother and brother in the family grocery store and there, she also learned the value of helping those in need as her mother delivered baskets of food to people during the Depression — early lessons that stayed with her forever, stories she could recount so clearly," her obituary states.

    Prague, who was a teacher and medical social worker, was elected as a state representative in 1982, a position she held until 1990, according to her obituary.

    She then served as commissioner of the former state Department of Aging, a position she lost after she resisted slashing funding and merging the agency "into a larger department during a financial crisis," according to a news report.

    She was elected in 1994 as state senator for the 19th District. In May 2012, she announced she would not run for reelection that fall to the Senate seat, The Day reported.

    Former Gov. Dannel P. Malloy chose Prague in 2013 to lead then-named state Department of Aging, when it was formed again. Malloy noted in the announcement Prague's role "in helping to establish the first Assisted Living Facilities in the state" and creating "a statewide health insurance program that counsels seniors on their options for insurance coverage." She then retired from that position in 2014, according to news reports.

    Former Preston First Selectman and former state Rep. Robert Congdon called her an "incredible advocate," especially for seniors.

    "If you called Edith on a constituent issue, she kept on it until it was solved," said Kenneth Przybysz, a former legislator who is now a lobbyist in Hartford. Prague defeated Przybysz in a Democratic primary in 1994 and won a three-way race in the general election, but they remained good friends and worked together on a number of issues after Przybysz became a lobbyist.

    “She was tenacious,” said Norwich Mayor Peter Nystrom, a former state legislator. "She fought for the things that she believed in."

    Nystrom said he and Prague shared a desire to improve mental health facilities in the region and were both unhappy with the closing of the Norwich State Hospital. They worked together to get the Southeastern Mental Health Authority located at the Uncas on Thames campus in Norwich.

    Nystrom, a Republican who ran for Prague's Senate seat in 2002, remained friends with Prague after she won the race.

    Nystrom applauded her for her strong advocacy against drunken driving.

    Prague was recognized for that advocacy in 2012, when Mothers Against Drunk Driving of Connecticut named an award in her honor, the Associated Press reported. The AP noted that Prague worked to deter drunken driving and "was motivated to first run for office in the early 1980s after a family member was killed by a drunken driver."

    Officials on Thursday issued statements that called attention to Prague's legacy of fighting for justice and equity.

    State Senate President Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, and Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, said Prague "was a relentless fighter" in her advocacy for workers, the elderly and her constituents.

    “If you found yourself allied with her on an issue of passion, you were in luck," they said. "If you were on the opposite side of her, you knew you were in for a battle. But along with her passion was a profound empathy and a deep respect for others.”

    They said Prague “often served as a guiding light and voice of conscience for the Senate Democratic caucus” and would break stalemates “with her common sense, wit, and genuine values.”

    "Edith Prague was a state treasure, she was a faithful crusader for working people and the elderly, and the positive impact of the public policies that Edith championed and passed into law will be felt in Connecticut for decades to come," said state Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, who won her first term in 2012 as senator for the 19th state Senate District seat after Prague retired from the General Assembly.

    Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., called Prague “fierce and fearless — unexcelled and unstinting in her passion to give voice to the most vulnerable among us.” He said she was an “incomparable, consummate public servant, working tirelessly for causes of justice and equity well into her 80s.”

    U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, who remained close to Prague since they met working together in the state legislature, said she worked on behalf of seniors, including to lower drug costs and expand access to long-term care and home-based care.

    "Her example and guidance on how to conduct yourself as a public official has been invaluable, and I’ll always be grateful to call her my colleague and my friend — she was truly one of a kind, a wonderful person we just won’t see replicated," he added.

    State Comptroller Kevin Lembo said Prague was "a one-of-a-kind figure in Connecticut government" who "displayed a ferocious dedication to her constituents that made her a legend in eastern Connecticut and a profoundly successful lawmaker."

    "The impact of her good work in the legislature and the executive branch will live on long into the future," he added.

    State Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, called Prague "a champion for Connecticut’s most vulnerable residents, especially seniors."

    "She was a problem solver, a skillful policymaker, a tireless advocate and she helped improve the quality of life for so many state residents through her public service," Somers said in the statement. "Her passion to help eastern Connecticut residents is a lasting and inspiring legacy."

    State Rep. Kevin Ryan, D-Montville, said Prague “always had the working person foremost in her mind” as well as seniors.

    “Edith Prague was a legend and powerhouse in eastern Connecticut," Secretary of the State Denise Merrill said in a statement. "To say that Edith was ambitious, steadfast, and a force to be reckoned with would be a massive understatement."

    "I shared a district with Edith that included UConn for many years, and I knew her to be a fierce advocate for those she believed were being mistreated, and she never, ever backed down," Merrill added.

    According to the Associated Press, survivors include three children and nine grandchildren.

    "She was preceded in death by her husband Frank, with whom she operated an independent chain of shoe stores, and another daughter, Susan," according to the AP. "Funeral services are scheduled Sunday at Temple B'nai Israel in Willimantic, followed by burial at Temple B'nai Israel Cemetery in Mansfield."

    k.drelich@theday.com 

    Jerome Silverstein, right, shares a photo he just took of state Sen. Edith Prague and her dog Molly outside the polls Nov. 2, 2010, in Franklin. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
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    From left, state Sens. Edith Prague, Gayle Slossberg and Andrea Stillman listen Feb. 3, 2010, as Gov. M. Jodi Rell delivers her State of the State address to a joint session of the Connecticut General Assembly at the state Capitol in Hartford. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
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    State Sen. Edith Prague listens as the Senate convenes Feb. 8, 2012, the opening day of the 2012 legislative session, at the state Capitol in Hartford. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
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