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Stephen Vermillion, a beloved Capitol Hill veteran whose courage and commitment to public service inspired friends, family and colleagues, died early Friday morning after losing a four-year-long battle with leukemia. He was 52.
A competitive rower and devoted public servant, Vermillion was diagnosed with leukemia on Nov. 15, 2008. After undergoing rigorous chemotherapy treatments, Vermillion was able to recover and return to Capitol Hill in January 2011 to serve as chief of staff to Rep. David Rivera, R-Fla.
However ,Vermillion’s illness returned this summer, and when it became apparent that he would not survive, he vowed to fight it out until at least Nov. 15, which would be the four-year anniversary of his diagnosis. Vermillion completed that goal, which friends and colleagues say is indicative of his indefatigable will to live.
Born in Washington, D.C., in 1960, Vermillion moved to Latin America as a child with his family. While there, he became passionate about America’s relations with Latin America, especially Cuba, an issue he would work extensively on during his many years of service on Capitol Hill.
But while he was ardent about working on Cuban-American relations, friends and family said his true passion was rowing. He was co-captain of the Loyola College rowing team in Baltimore and tried out for the U.S. national rowing team in 1982. For many years, he served on the board of directors of the Potomac Boat Club and loved his mornings spent rowing on the Anacostia River.
On Nov. 9, the boat club he loved so dearly named a boat in Vermillion’s honor, a ceremony that took place on Vermillion’s lawn so he was able to witness it in his final days.
“Stephen was a giant among masters rowers. He last raced in 2008 and even in his late 40s was beating guys in their 20s at [USRowing Masters National Championships] and other major regattas,” said Virginia Bryant, social committee chair for the Potomac Boat Club. “Rowing was never just a hobby or pastime for Stephen, it was a way of life. And he sets the example for how to live it to the fullest.”
Vermillion got his start on Capitol Hill in 1986, and through the years proved himself as a loyal and trusted public servant, which helped him rise through the ranks to become chief of staff to former Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., and Rivera.
Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., who hired Vermillion on as a foreign affairs and national security legislative assistant in 1987 after meeting him on a trip to central America, said Vermillion’s death is a tragedy for Capitol Hill.
He said that not only was Vermillion bright and able to think outside of the box, but that his moral compass was unfaltering.
“If I could rate people from 1 to 10 on whether I would trust them to well represent me, and to do it in a way that would make me proud and would make an employee proud, Steve would be a 10,” Sensenbrenner said.
Sensenbrenner added in a speech on the House floor, “No one who worked with Steve Vermillion or who was touched by his life came away a poorer person because of it.”
Diaz-Balart, who retired from office in 2011, said Vermillion was more than just a colleague to him, as Vermillion served as a pallbearer at his father’s funeral in 2005.
“I have never known a stronger human being than Steve Vermillion because his strength was rooted in love,” Diaz-Balart said. “He deeply loved his family and he loved freedom. . . . He was an extraordinary man who, in important positions on Capitol Hill, helped countless individuals, both the powerful and the weak, treating them all with respect, courtesy and compassion.”
Rivera, who had known Vermillion for almost 25 years, said his time in Congress was enriched by Vermillion’s presence in his office and Vermillion’s knowledge of the legislative process and that Vermillion’s legacy is an inspiration to all who knew and loved him.
“Steve will be dearly missed by the Capitol family for his warmth and his sense of service to this institution and our nation,” Rivera said. “Steve demonstrated this service with great dignity the past two years as he simultaneously battled health problems while dutifully fulfilling his professional obligations with honor and distinction. His family can take great pride in the way Steve honored us all with his unwavering strength of character and dedication to the work of the American people.”
Hector Arguello, legislative director to Rivera and Vermillion’s longtime colleague, called Vermillion his hero and said he owes a great deal of his success to his friendship with Vermillion.
“I take great comfort that in his final days, he was able to rest and enjoy the warmth from the love of his family, friends earned from a life well lived and the abundance of goodwill his character inspired,” Arguello said. “He’s had an immeasurable influence on me and I will forever be grateful for having known him. He was my boss, my friend, my mentor, my hero, and I’ll never forget him.”
Vermillion is survived by his wife, Jennifer, and two teenage children, Sarah and Joseph.