MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) _ Fifty years after she first glimpsed the Statue of Liberty's torch, the only woman in the nation to serve three terms as governor handed over Vermont's legislative torch Thursday.

Madeleine Kay Kunin, a Democrat who became Vermont's first woman governor in 1985 and won two more two-year terms, recalled her family's flight from Nazi persecution and her first view at age 6 of America.

''When my mother and brother and I arrived on the S.S. Manhattan on June 10, 1940, in New York Harbor, and we caught an early morning glimpse of the Statue of Liberty, little did I think that her torch was held high for me,'' Kunin said in an emotional farewell address to the Legislature.

Lawmakers rewarded her with waves of applause, several standing ovations, hugs and handshakes. Republican Richard Snelling, who was sworn in Thursday, held the governor's office for eight years before Kunin. Although the state faced a $35 million deficit when he left office, he campaigned on the theme that Kunin had mismanaged the state's finances.

Snelling predicted he will have to work with the Legislature to bail the state out of a pending deficit that could climb higher than $20 million this fiscal year.

Kunin's speech centered on a theme of gratitude for the doors that government had opened in her life, and a philosophy that government should continue to open doors for others.

''I got my education because of the low tuition at the University of Massachusetts and my husband was educated by the GI Bill,'' she said. ''Government has traditionally helped people like me up the ladder; it is not a new idea. What is new is how we do it in this time and place.''

Kunin cited the doubling of state aid to education during the past six years, and new programs designed to get women off welfare and into productive work. She noted that Vermont ranked 47th in the country in teachers' salaries when she took office in 1985; it now ranks 26th.

The Swiss-born Kunin, 57, who is Jewish, said that ''place of birth, religion, gender, none of these proved to be insurmountable barriers.

''Only in Vermont could the usual stereotypes fade into the background, a state where the people give each one of us a chance to prove who we are, by what we say and what we do,'' she said.

Kunin announced last spring she would not seek re-election. She has said she will teach this spring semester at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., and hopes to start a foundation dedicated to environmental protection in the emerging democracies of Eastern Europe.