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Kitty Kearns had a small desk and simple gray office chair tucked under the balcony and just a few feet from her young legislative pages. 

It was from there she directed the smooth flow of help to senators and legislative staff during debates. 

Thursday, the day that Speaker Jim Scheer announced to the Legislature that its beloved decades-long employee had died, a vase of red carnations and baby's breath sat on her desk, and her black-and-white plaid lap blanket lay folded on her chair. 

It was hard for people to believe she'd never occupy that chair again, that her pages would never be able to look to her for helpful direction and advice and to share their successes, that there would be no more short listening sessions in the hallways with coworkers and senators.  

One more person with all that institutional knowledge, gone. 

Kearns, 72, had left work sick about a month before and never returned, dying Wednesday from recently diagnosed pancreatic cancer. 

She started in the Legislature as a page in 1968 just before her 22nd birthday, one of about a dozen young people making $1.25 an hour. By the time the 1972 legislative session rolled around, she had become the "Page in Charge."

Five years after that, she became page supervisor, a job she would keep for decades, guiding, mentoring and befriending about 1,250 young people who helped senators during debates and hearings, about 30 each session.

"They're all good kids when they come in, but they leave better kids," Scheer said. 

Kearns literally gave her life and soul to the Legislature, he said. She took her job seriously. She was fair, competent, respected. A remarkable woman.

And she made the pages feel like the most important people there, to the process and to her, said page Alyssa Lund.

"It is a huge loss to our system and our body and she will be very, very missed," Scheer said.

Lincoln Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks said Kearns was a bright spot for senators, too, and an indomitable force. "We really are going to miss her an awful lot." 

Brandon Metzler, research analyst for the clerk of the Legislature, worked as a page during the 2014 and 2015 sessions, and he and Kearns became fast friends. 

He knew her well, but not much about her private life. She had such an inviting spirit that people would just tell her everything, but then she didn't give up much about herself, he said. 

Talking to her was almost like therapy, he said.

Pages knew how much she loved the Capitol. She let them know how lucky they should feel to be working there — and when she relayed information they felt like they really knew what was going on, and were more comfortable in their jobs feeling like they understood the place better, he said. 

"She loved the place immensely," Metzler said. "Kitty's the reason I'm here today and still working at the Capitol in the position I'm in. I owe Kitty a great deal." 

Lund, a UNL senior and second-year page, said her pages could always count on her. 

"We respected her like she was our boss, but we also never thought of her as our boss," Lund said. "We, more so, were just excited to see her every day and anxious to hear her stories. ... She honestly knew everything about this Legislature."

And she was proud to hear about all of their accomplishments. And if things were not so great, she was sympathetic and understanding. 

Each page, down through the years, had their own special relationship and experience with Kearns, Lund said. And whether they've been gone 10 years, 20 years, 30 or more, she made sure those one or two years as pages gave them a lifetime of memories. 

"And all of the pages carry that with us. We feel very lucky to have been able to be around her, even for that short amount of time. 'Cause it feels like we've known her forever." 

Every year, without fail, two or three people — former pages now much older — wander through the Capitol and want to see Kitty, said Clerk of the Legislature Patrick O'Donnell. 

As a supervisor, Kearns was patient and tolerant, but when something needed to be done she expected it to be done, O'Donnell said. And she could be tough.

Toward the end of sessions, when senators worked into the night, Kearns wouldn't let the pages leave until every senator was gone from the chamber and the staff had completed their work, he said.

Sen. Mark Kolterman, whose wife Suzanne died of pancreatic cancer in late 2017, introduced a bill this session to appropriate $15 million for a pancreatic cancer research center at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. He said he is optimistic the Legislature would pass the legislation. 

"We've got to get that bill out," he said. "If nothing else as a tribute to Kitty."

Kearns is survived by her brother, Michel; sister-in-law Linda Kearns; nephew Nicholas; niece Kristin Holbert; and great-nieces and great-nephew. 

No visitation or funeral is planned. Memorials are suggested to the family for future designation. 

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7228 or jyoung@journalstar.com

On Twitter @LJSLegislature.

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State government reporter

JoAnne Young covers state government, including the Legislature and state agencies, and the people they serve.

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