Jane Wilhelm Saxl, a well-known community activist and lawmaker, died late Tuesday night in a hospital in Fort Myers, Fla., from a heart attack, according to her son, Michael Saxl.
She was 66 years old.
Saxl, a New York City native, moved to Bangor in 1974 when her husband, Joseph, was hired as superintendent of the Bangor Mental Health Institute. She quickly adopted Bangor and was a founding member of the community’s first Jewish synagogue.
She went on to serve as a Bangor School Committee member, a Bangor city councilor, and then a state representative for a portion of the Bangor area for four consecutive terms.
“My mom was a great role model for girls, women and even young men in Maine,” Michael Saxl – who followed his mother into politics and served as speaker of the House during 2000 – said by phone from Sanibel, Fla., on Wednesday. “She had a great career in public service.”
During the latter part of her life, Saxl suffered from diabetes and congestive heart failure, a condition in which the heart can’t pump enough blood to the body’s other organs. She split her time between Surry and Sanibel, and her daughter Mary-Anne Saxl was her full-time caregiver.While raising her four children in Bangor, Saxl served as president of the local chapter, and later at the state level, for the League of Women Voters, and in 1981 she helped to form Congregation Beth El, Bangor’s Reform synagogue.
Over the last 25 years, the congregation has grown from a handful of families meeting in rented space to more than 200 member-households in its own building on French Street, former Rabbi Laurence Milder said Wednesday in a phone interview, adding that “her children were part of the earliest confirmation class.”
“She really brought a sense of the importance of Reform Judaism to our congregation – its prophetic values and its intellectual rigor,” said Milder, who after 11 years left Bangor last year for a new position at a synagogue in Westborough, Mass. “She was also somebody who had an enormous ability to connect with people. That really added to the quality of the congregation.”
It was the outpouring of support when her husband died later that year that spurred her to enter public service, her son said.
“She was deeply touched by the people in Bangor after my dad died in 1981,” he said. “She did what she could to give back.
After one term on the school board, Saxl turned her attention to the Bangor City Council, where she served from 1987 to 1993.
During her two terms on the council, she led the effort to establish curbside recycling in Bangor, the first program of its kind in the state, and worked to create an international transportation route between Canada and New York that runs through Maine, Michael Saxl said.
“She was one of the strongest voices in the state for the East-West highway, which has now just been designated” as a high priority by the federal government, he said.
Bangor City Manager Ed Barrett knew Saxl for decades, because he was hired by the city while she served as a councilor.
“She was somebody who took a great deal of pride in Bangor and did her best to serve the city very well,” he said. “She worked very hard for the council and for Bangor in the Legislature, and she was someone who we’re really going to miss a great deal.”
In 1993, Saxl earned a seat in the 116th Legislature’s House of Representatives, representing the west side of Bangor. As state Democratic representative, she fought hard to make health care more affordable for all Mainers by supporting the creation of the Consumer Office of the Bureau of Insurance and sponsoring the Patient’s Bill of Rights. She also secured a new dock and fueling station in Bangor.
Gov. John Baldacci, who described Saxl as “a terrific lady,” sent his condolences to her family on Wednesday.
“Jane had an elegant, graceful way about her. Everybody loved her,” Baldacci stated in a press release. “Her persona transcended party politics. She had a deep commitment to the health and welfare of the people of Bangor and to the state of Maine, and it was exhibited in everything she did for the community.”
After eight years in the House, and prohibited by term limits from running for another term, Saxl wrapped up her legislative career in 2001 with an unsuccessful bid for a seat in the Maine Senate.
“With the passing of Jane Saxl, Maine has lost a dynamic leader, a tireless advocate for families and a savvy, caring and articulate woman of great character and even greater heart,” U.S. Rep. Tom Allen stated in a press release issued Wednesday. “Whether fighting to improve health care and expanding education opportunities or working to improve the lives of the people of Bangor and of Maine, Jane never lost her determination, her sense of humor or her hope for the future.”
Dr. Sid Block, also a founding member of the synagogue and the cantor at Beth El, described Saxl as a “very religious woman.”
“I think that fell into her politics, and she was proud to be described as a liberal,” the Bangor physician said Wednesday in a phone interview.
“In a religious sense,” he continued, “she knew that God was not happy that there was inequality in the world. She believed that her role was to right that and her active life politically was in the direction of being compassionate and helpful and one who stood up for those who did not have what she and her family had.”
Born in New York City in 1939, Saxl graduated from The Dalton School and earned a bachelor’s and a master’s degree from the University of Illinois at Springfield.
She was president of the Friends of the Bangor Public Library and served on the boards of Arcady Music Society and Mabel Wadsworth Women’s Health Center.
Saxl was an avid bird watcher and loved to fish. She was a huge fan and season ticket holder of the University of Maine hockey team, her son said.
“She went to Maine hockey games for therapy,” he joked. “She still has season tickets, two seats down from the penalty box, so she could interact with the hooligans.
“She and my dad made a great commitment to public service and they had an [unbounded] love for Bangor and the state of Maine,” Michael Saxl said.
Saxl is survived by her four children, Michael Saxl of Manchester; Susi Saxl of St. Louis Park, Minn.; Ruth L. Saxl of Pittsburgh, Pa.; and Mary-Anne Saxl of Surry.
A memorial service is planned for 1 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 26, at Congregation Beth El.
Bangor Daily News reporter Judy Harrison contributed to this article.