Government & Politics

‘Fought the good fight’: Lee’s Summit lawmaker dies in sleep months after car crash

State Rep. Rebecca Roeber
State Rep. Rebecca Roeber

Months after a car crash that left her with 18 broken bones, state Rep. Rebecca Roeber died in her sleep Tuesday morning in Estes Park, Colo., according to her husband Rick.

The exact cause of Roeber’s death is unknown.

The news came as a surprise as Roeber, 61, had pulled through multiple surgeries and had expressed just last month her determination to recover and run for re-election. Roeber, R-Lee’s Summit, had crashed her car in March after she fell asleep at the wheel, a side effect from then-undiagnosed sleep apnea.

Roeber was on vacation with her extended family when she died.

Rick Roeber said being able to pass peacefully surrounded by family members and the mountains was a “victory lap” for his wife, who he said was “well-loved.”

“A lot have questioned why she went through so much pain and so many surgeries,” Rick Roeber said.

“She fought the good fight and finished strong.”

A 17-year educator in the Raytown School District, Rebecca Roeber was elected to office in 2014. She was the chairwoman of the House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee and pushed for school choice and charter school expansion.

In a statement, Missouri House Speaker Elijah Haahr said Roeber would “forever be remembered as a champion for Missouri’s students.”

“As a teacher and then as our colleague, Rebecca had a heart of a servant and this is truly a great loss to every life she touched,” Haahr wrote, in an email to lawmakers and Capitol staff. “It was a privilege to have been one of those people, to become her friend, and to serve with her. She will be truly missed.”

A fellow Jackson County legislator, state Rep. Jon Patterson, met Roeber as a volunteer on her first campaign. He recalled waiting out the rain with Roeber in a McDonald’s, where they proceeded to talk about policy for 90 minutes.

“She wasn’t there because of the title and all the trappings that come with public life,” Patterson, R-Lee’s Summit, said of Roeber’s time in the legislature. “You could tell she was passionate about children and helping all of them get the education they deserved.”

State Sen. Mike Cierpiot, whose district covers Jackson County, had met Roeber years ago through Republican politics and his wife Connie, a former state legislator, served as Roeber’s first campaign manager. While in the legislature, Cierpiot partnered with Roeber on education reform and was able to see her draw from her years of experience as a public school teacher.

He said Roeber had a “wonderful laugh and smile” and a “personal touch that disarmed people.”

“She had got her fight back,” Cierpiot said, of Roeber’s recovery. “She had got her smile back.”

“It was kick in the gut,” Cierpiot said, of Roeber’s death.

Speaking from a long-term rehabilitation center last month, Roeber extended her gratitude to the friends and family who remained by her side during her months-long hospital stay. She had said she had broken multiple bones including her pelvis, femur, both ankles, an elbow and six ribs.

“I don’t know how this is going to change me for sure, but I know that something like this, you don’t experience it without changing something,” Roeber had said. “I’ve always been a ‘pull myself up by bootstraps’ person and I’ve had to rely on people totally for three months, and that’s been good for me to learn how to trust people more.

“I’ve been amazed the kindness of others and I want to give that back.”

The injuries were the result of a March 25 car crash in which she crossed the center line of a two-lane road in Morgan County and crashed into another car. The driver of the other car sustained minor injuries. Passersby called 911 and her husband.

Later, she found out that she had sleep apnea, a disorder that causes a person to stop breathing and wake up multiple times a night. Not getting tested when it was recommended to her had been a “horrible price to pay.”

Recovery for Roeber meant relearning how to walk. Still, she had been optimistic she would be knocking on doors come election time and said she wanted to enact new legislation about foster care adoption and charter school expansion.

““I want to let people know I’m going to work hard,” Roeber had said. “I’m not done.”

At the time, Roeber joked her immediate motivation for recovery was to be able to go to her Lee’s Summit home, which she had not visited since the crash.

Roeber returned home last week. Patterson said he talked to her on the phone.

“She was thinking about the future,” he said.

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Crystal Thomas covers Missouri politics for The Kansas City Star. An Illinois native and a graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism, she has experience covering state and local government.