She's Arizona's favorite daughter and a true pioneer, having been the first woman to lead a state senate, the first woman to serve on the United States Supreme Court and, now, the first woman to have her named attached to a law school.
The Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law at Arizona State University recently hosted renaming festivities for its namesake, who last spring retired from the nation's highest court.
In lively remarks to faculty, students and the general public, O'Connor recalled her break more than 50 years ago into the field of law, at a time when women were legal secretaries, not lawyers.
At a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Friday, Nov. 17, ASU President Michael M. Crow called O'Connor "a founding mother" in American history.
"She represents a unique thing among American intellectuals, and that is, a plain-spoken American intellect," Crow said. "It's understandable by many of us."
Responding to a past quote from O'Connor that she isn't sure young women today appreciate the battles women in the past fought on their behalf, Crow vowed, "We're going to make sure everyone understands what you went through."
Patricia White, Dean of the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law, said O'Connor brought "remarkable grace and talent, great humor and great integrity" to the bench and was an "unqualified success" there.
White said the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law will mirror its namesake's groundbreaking persona to "approach legal education in a different way," and teach tomorrow's attorneys to deal with urgent problems such as global warming, mounting threats to human rights and terrorism.
"We intend to use Justice O'Connor as a model, to break the mold and to move forward with great success," she told a crowd of about 250 dignitaries, faculty, staff and students.
Alastair Gamble, a third-year law student, shared a few little-known facts about O'Connor, including her golf prowess (she got a hole-in-one six years ago) and her admiration for the poet Aldous Huxley.
She has been a shining example to his generation, Gamble said.
"There's never been a time when we did not know the great justice O'Connor," he said. "And she has challenged us to make the most of our lives and our careers, no matter how many setbacks there are."
As a state senator in the 1960s, O'Connor voted to establish ASU's law school. "It was a very divisive vote," she recalled. "Many people in the Legislature said, `Another law school? We already have one. Why do we want another one? More lawyers? We have too many already."
Now that it bears her name, O'Connor said she looks forward to visiting more often, and she joked about the responsibility she bears.
"It's going to restrict my activities, you know, because I certainly don't want to bring any discredit to this law school," she said. "In my retirement, I guess I'm going to have to behave myself."
Speaking to a group of first-year law students on Thursday, Nov. 16, she handed down a roadmap to success: reading fast, writing well and looking for opportunities to "make something out of almost anything."
O'Connor, who's been doing that her entire career, shared these highlights:
*Upon her graduation from the Stanford University Law School, O'Connor applied for a job at a Los Angeles law firm, where she was asked about her typing skills. "We've never hired a woman as a lawyer at this law firm, and I don't think we ever will," the partner told her. "Our clients wouldn't tolerate it." O'Connor declined his secretarial offer.
*She worked her way into a job in San Mateo, Calif., by offering to work for free and share an office with the district attorney's secretary. "No matter what your beginning is, you can turn it into something, okay?" O'Connor said. "It doesn't matter if you're not offered the keys to the White House on your first job."
*During her interview with President Reagan in 1981 for the U.S. Supreme Court vacancy, the pair talked about cattle, horses and building fences. "I think he probably put me on the court because he liked my ranching background," O'Connor said.
The former justice said she wasn't confident in her abilities to make decisions on the nation's top court, and today, she still wonders whether her work sufficed.
"I'm not sure I did it well enough because when I retired another woman was not nominated, and the number of woman on the court dropped by 50 percent, and that made me very sad," she said.
O'Connor praised Crow, White, and the Arizona Supreme Court, noting two of its current members clerked for her on the U.S. Supreme Court.
ASU's proximity to Phoenix, the state capitol and to Arizona's commerce hub is fortuitous, O'Connor noted.
"It's with the help of a law school that many public policy issues in the state end up being developed and improved," O'Connor said. "This law school is poised to become an extremely important part of the state of Arizona, and you can help by being involved in public service, clinical programs, helping people."
She challenged the students to make her and themselves proud.
"It's great to be the first, but you don't want to be the last," O'Connor said. "Now that burden falls on you. This is the first law school to be named for a woman, and I don't want it to be the last."