New Mexico's Member of the "Supremes"
In the hoopla over the retirement announcement of US Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor this summer, her early days growing up on a cattle ranch in the Southwest were replayed in many retrospectives of her life. As she has almost always been, O'Connor was identified as an Arizonan. Even last month, as attention turned to the battle over her replacement, the Google News site still tracked nearly 400 news stories mentioning "Sandra Day O'Connor" and "Arizona."
In fact, however, although O'Connor's later pre-appointment years were spent in Arizona, where she served in the legislature and on the state court of appeals, she grew up as much in New Mexico as in our neighbor to the west. None of last month's news stories about her even mentioned New Mexico, however, and the Land of Enchantment worked its way into her retirement bios only as a hyphenate, as in: "She grew up on the Arizona-New Mexico border." Even the back cover of O'Connor's bestselling memoir of growing up out west, Lazy B, released in paperback in 2003, refers only to "the harsh yet beautiful land of the Lazy B ranch in Arizona."
Excuse us for an excess of state pride, but the map of the Lazy B ranch right inside that very book, opposite the preface, clearly shows the ranch split right down the middle by the New Mexico-Arizona border. To our admittedly prejudiced eye, indeed, it looks as though a teensy bit more was on the New Mexico side. (The Lazy B was broken up and sold in 1986.) True, the ranch extended south and southeast of Duncan, Ariz., and the headquarters was just barely in Arizona. But many of the earliest memories of America's first female Supreme Court justice were of Southwest New Mexico (or "Desert Exposure territory," as we like to think of it).
"The Lazy B ranch straddles the border of Arizona and New Mexico along the Gila River," O'Connor writes, regrettably listing the states in alphabetical order rather than order of importance. "It is high desert country--dry, windswept, clear, often cloudless."
O'Connor's parents, Harry A. Day and Ada Mae Wilkey Day (whom she calls "DA" and "MO," respectively, in the book, after nicknames given them by her sister when first learning to spell), were even married here, in Las Cruces. The future justice was actually born in Texas--in El Paso, on March 26, 1930. Amazingly from today's overprotective-parent perspective, O'Connor also attended all but one year of her school days in El Paso: At the start of each school year, her parents would drive to Lordsburg (yes, the one in NEW MEXICO) to meet the eastbound Southern Pacific train and put her on board to El Paso. "My mother always spoke to the conductor and made him promise to keep an eye on me until El Paso," she writes in Lazy B. "DA gave him a tip to help jog his memory." She would stay with her Grandmother Wilkey while going to school.
In 1942, however, when O'Connor was ready to start the eighth grade, her homesickness for the ranch led her parents to allow her to try the public school in Lordsburg: "Each school day MO or DA drove me over the eight miles of ranch road to its intersection with the highway from Duncan to Lordsburg." There she'd wait for the school bus in the "three-room pueblo-style stucco building" that served as the port of entry station on the highway. Earl Kinney and his wife, Manny, who lived at the station and served as the staff, would keep an eye on the eight-grader until the school bus came.
The following fall, O'Connor resumed staying with her grandmother in El Paso, where she attended Austin High School.
In another chapter, she tells how a 75-year-old ranch hand, "Rastus," was suffering from the after-effects of tuberculosis he'd contracted during World War I. Her mother volunteered to take Rastus to the veterans hospital at "Fort Baird [sic] near Silver City." There the family visited Rastus every few weeks, but he failed to get better.
Near the book's end, those Silver City-area pine trees make another appearance. As Sandra Day was preparing to marry John O'Connor, just before Christmas, 1952, the whole family took a trip to the mountains to cut pine trees, pine boughs and mistletoe to decorate the barn where the ceremony would be held.
When Sandra Day O'Connor announced her retirement from the bench, a key reason was her husband's ill health; she wanted more time to take care of him and be close to him. Their marriage, it turns out, was inaugurated under New Mexico mistletoe.
Now that she has time, we hope Justice O'Connor will find her way back to her other home state for a visit or two.
--David A. Fryxell.