Saturday, July 2, 2005
'She was brilliant'
Friends remember teen as 'superb' dancer
Diana Washington Valdez
El Paso Times
After Sandra Day O'Connor announced her retirement, El
Pasoans who knew her as a teenager described her as
brilliant, quiet and studious.
The outgoing Supreme Court justice was born in El Paso
and attended Radford School. She was 16 when she
transferred to Austin High School, where she graduated
sixth in her class of 156 in 1946. She visited El Paso
a few times after she became a Supreme Court justice
and attended her high-school class's 50-year reunion.
In her later years, after having been a state senator
and court of appeals judge in Arizona and as a Supreme
Court justice, she was described as "unassuming,"
"fun-loving" and "a superb dancer."
"She was so thrilled to be back here and to see
everybody at the reunion," said Cecil Bear, a
contemporary of O'Connor's during their high-school
years. "She said she looked forward to seeing the
(Austin High) 'A' letter on the mountain. She danced
quite a bit at the reunion. When I mentioned that I
could take her to the airport, she said, 'I can ride
the shuttle -- that's no big deal.' That's how
unassuming she was."
Elizabeth "Hondy" Hill McAlmon, an Austin High
classmate and friend of O'Connor's, said "we saw each
other in the summers. I would stay at her family's
ranch, and she would stay with me in El Paso. She was
brilliant. She grasped ideas easily, and whatever she
did, she did it perfectly, whether it was riding a
horse or cooking. We played a lot of games, such as
checkers and monopoly, and she always won."
"She was the voice of common sense on the Supreme
Court," said Nancy Hamilton, another former schoolmate
of O'Connor's. Both belonged to the National Honor
Society and Kalevala writing club during high school.
Hamilton said O'Connor's book, "The Majesty of the
Law: Reflections of a Supreme Court Justice," does "a
very good job of describing how the court works." The
Supreme Court justice also wrote about life on her
family ranch in the 2003 book "Lazy B: Growing up on a
Cattle Ranch in the American Southwest."
"Because of her prestigious career and connection to
Austin High, student council president Robert Corral
wrote her a letter asking her if she would be willing
to lend her name to the district's new magnet school,"
said Larry Monarrez, spokesman for the El Paso
Independent School District. "She replied that she
would be honored and even promised to visit the
(campus) when time permitted."
Young Sandra Day divided her childhood in the 1930s
and 1940s between El Paso and her family's Lazy B
Ranch near Lordsburg, N.M.
Betty Jo Farnsworth of Lordsburg was a frequent
visitor at the Lazy B Ranch when her daughter, Sue,
was married to Sandra Day O'Connor's brother, Alan.
She got to see a very different side of the first
woman Supreme Court justice.
"She's such an ordinary person when you meet her at
the ranch, when she can just be herself," Farnsworth
said. "She can be prim and proper when she has to be,
but she can be lots of fun."
H. Vern Payne, a former chief justice of the New
Mexico Supreme Court, first met O'Connor when he was 6
years old and rode the school bus in Lordsburg with
the future Supreme Court justice, who was then in
junior high. Their paths crossed again at judicial
training sessions in the 1970s, when O'Connor was an
Arizona appellate judge and he was a New Mexico judge.
"She had a terrific reputation," Payne said.
In 1982, Payne thought he'd do a little lobbying for
his former busmate when a vacancy opened on the U.S.
Supreme Court. His opportunity came at a dinner in
Washington, when he got into a discussion with an aide
to Chief Justice Warren Burger.
"I said to him, 'They ought to get Sandra Day
O'Connor.' The assistant's head whipped around and he
said, 'What do you know about that?' I said, 'I know
she grew up on a ranch out in Southern New Mexico and
Much later, Payne said, the assistant told him, "When
you said her name, I thought someone had leaked her
name. The president (Ronald Reagan) had mentioned her
name as a possibility."
U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, who will help
to confirm a new justice, was a friend of hers. "She
has been a wonderful role model for young women in
America and around the world," Hutchison said. "Her
tenure on the bench has set a new standard of
Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M. said, "When Justice
O'Connor was named to the Supreme Court, there was a
lot of anticipation and excitement about her and what
she would bring to the court. I believe she certainly
met and exceeded a lot of expectations. She brought a
new insight and outlook to the court, and her
pragmatic Southwest sensibilities are reflected in her
opinions. She has served the court and the nation
Diana Washington Valdez may be reached at
Jeanne La Marca of the Lordsburg Liberal contributed
to this story.