State Sen. Emily Couric, 54, who became an inspiration to her colleagues when she took over leadership of the Democratic Party of Virginia after learning that she had a particularly virulent form of cancer, died at her home in Charlottesville yesterday morning.

She survived 15 months after her diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, a disease that usually is discovered in an advanced stage and claims most of its victims within half a year. But Couric launched an aggressive battle to prolong her life, enrolling in clinical trials for what she called "cutting-edge conventional" therapies.

Personable, energetic and upbeat, even as she underwent treatments that left her bald and in need of daily naps, Couric realized that the cancer meant she could not seek the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor this year -- a race for which she was considered the front-runner.

Less than five months after her diagnosis, she was elected general chair of the state party. In a unique arrangement to accommodate her medical needs, Lawrence H. Framme III became state chair, responsible for daily operations. Couric was the party's public face and chief fundraiser.

"She never gave up," Framme said yesterday. "Whether it was a legislative matter or pancreatic cancer, she fought it with everything she had."

Couric never considered relinquishing her seat in the Senate, where she had served since 1995, and remained optimistic. At an anniversary party she and her husband held at their home in August, she made plans with Sen. John S. Edwards (D-Roanoke) to attend some football games this fall. She talked with Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) about running for reelection in 2003, and even about getting back in the race for lieutenant governor in 2005.

"She enjoyed her work so much that she got energy from it," said Mary Broz, her aide and a close friend. "It was her life's work."

But recently many colleagues began suspecting that she was losing the fight. They noted a few weeks ago that she no longer was giving speeches. Then they noticed that her sister Katie Couric was absent from NBC's "Today Show," which she co-hosts.

The state senator's attitude after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 proved inspiring for some. Planned Parenthood of the Blue Ridge was to give Couric an award at a luncheon nine days later. The group briefly considered canceling. "But the feeling was we needed to hear Emily Couric at a time like this," said David Nova, head of the group. "We needed to learn from her and the way she faced life and this ordeal."

Couric arrived at the luncheon more than an hour late, explaining that she had been at a hospital for treatments. "She looked terribly frail when she sat down," Nova recalled. "But when she stood to give her address, the color returned to her face, and she delivered a speech with such passion and vigor, it was as if all the life poured back into her."

It was Couric's last public appearance.

Broz said that Couric died surrounded by her husband, George A. Beller; her sons, Ray and Jeff Wadlow; her two sisters, Katie Couric and Clara Batchelor; her brother, John M. Couric Jr.; and her parents, Elinor and John M. Couric, who live in Arlington, where Couric attended Yorktown High School.

Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) praised Couric's leadership and tenacity. "She was a principled legislator who fought for what she believed," he said in a statement. "Emily took that same determination in her fight against cancer and was an inspiration to many Virginians."

Mark R. Warner, the Democratic candidate for governor who at one time expected Couric to be his running mate, said in a statement that she was the "embodiment of courage."

"Virginia is a better place because Emily Couric served it," he said. "Emily will be missed, but her legacy and spirit endure."

Couric had said her proudest achievement was spearheading a law that made Virginia the first state to require insurance companies to pay for colon cancer screening. Katie Couric's husband died of the disease three years ago.

A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. Monday at St. Paul's Memorial Church in Charlottesville.

Emily Couric had been a state senator since 1995.