The Confessions of a Women’s Conference Escort — Part 1

Spending a day and a half with Sandra Day O’Connor, it’s quickly apparent why Ronald Reagan nominated her in 1981 to be the first woman Supreme Court justice in United States history.

O’Connor, 80, describes herself as an “unemployed cowgirl” when receiving an award for her trail-blazing career at California First Lady Maria Shriver’s Women’s Conference, making it easy to understand her appeal to Reagan, an accomplished horseman and believer in the sort of values one expects to find in an Arizona rancher’s daughter.

As O’Connor says on a panel at the conference with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg: “If you’re on a horse trying to get some cranky old cows to go the same place at the same time, you can do anything.”

Steadfast, hard working, truthful and resolute are all traits O’Connor showed as a woman with a Stanford law degree told at her first job interview there are no slots for lawyers and then being asked how well she could type.

A testament to O’Connor and her career: As she walks into the Long Beach Arena on October 26 to take her seat for the morning session of the conference, Matt Lauer of Today, brings her presence to the attention of the audience of nearly 15,000 which rises in an ovation.

At the Women’s Conference, volunteer “escorts” are appointed for every speaker – something on the order of 140. The varied list includes personalities like Dr. Mehmet Oz, Suze Orman and chef Paula Deen, newscasters like Diane Sawyer and Brian Williams and the CEOs of Starbucks and Nike.

First Lady Michelle Obama needs no volunteer escort — she has the Secret Service.

Escorts are also provided for the five recipients of the conference’s Minerva awards which honor women who exemplify the traits of the Roman goddess who graces California’s state seal – strength, courage and wisdom.

O’Connor has these traits in spades. Not only evidenced by her quarter century on the high court but her demeanor at the conference.

Accompanied by a charming and very witty friend, Catherine Templeton, a South Carolina lawyer who is preparing to mount a run for judge, O’Connor is remarkably gracious and patient with the numerous men and women who accost her to shake her hand, take a photo, express their admiration and describe the impact she’s had on their lives and, in many cases, their children.

While the United States marshals who protect O’Connor are not intrusive, they are vigilant.

An autograph seeker opens a large purse and rummages inside for a scrap of paper. From two steps behind the justice, one of the marshals moves swiftly to a spot between O’Connor and the woman, craning his head to peer into the purse. Paper is found, the justice signs, the woman departs, the marshal relaxes.

The evening before the third and final day of the conference is an event called “Night at the Village” with long rows of vendor booths, several stages and stalls for book-signings by various authors. It fills the 160,000 square foot expanse of the Long Beach Convention Center.

O’Connor wants to visit the Intuit booth because the maker of Quicken and other software is honoring the Minerva winners by raising money for their organizations and charities.

In O’Connor’s case that’s www.icivics.org, a web-based education project she founded to teach students about government and encourage their greater participation in the democratic process.

O’Connor notes at one point during her panel with Ginsburg that only one in three Americans knows there is an executive, legislative and judicial branch of government.

In the lobby of the Westin Hotel on Ocean Blvd., across from the convention center, O’Connor encounters her friend, Charlotte Schultz, wife of former Secretary of State George Schultz. Shultz and O’Connor had both attended the Washington State vs. Stanford homecoming game the Saturday before the conference.

Catherine warned both the marshals and me that O’Connor tends to be “inclusive.”

As proof, after inviting Schultz to accompany her to the Night at the Village, O’Connor urges her and Catherine and me to “scrunch” into the black sedan she rides in. Catherine and I beg off, opting for the roomier chase vehicle and giving Schultz and O’Connor some privacy.

The Intuit booth turns out to be about as far away from the VIP entrance to the convention center as possible.

O’Connor in dark slacks, knit blouse and long-sleeved purple jacket threads her way through the noisy throng. Several women recognize her, the familiar coif of her white hair a major tip-off. O’Connor stops and politely listens to what they have to say, usually prefacing her comments with what an extraordinary event the conference is.

When the Intuit booth is finally reached, O’Connor stretches out her hand to a young woman, thanking her for helping raise money for icivics. The young woman seems slightly at a loss, not immediately registering who she’s shaking hands with. Another woman comes over, then another and O’Connor chats amiably with them about, among other things, the merits of icivics. A photograph is taken and then a search begins for erasers and rulers with encouraging aphorisms which Catherine believes are created by Maria Shriver to benefit the causes proceeds from the Women’s Conference help support.

At the “Shop With a Purpose” booth where I think such items will be found – the first of several escort errors – none are, in fact, found. O’Connor is asked to sign a holiday ornament to increase its charity-benefiting value, which she does.

Even the densest person quickly observes that events unfold in the manner O’Connor wishes them to. If she tires of being photographed, she politely begs off. In a neutral voice, she says she’s seen enough of “Night at the Village.”

We head for dinner at L’Opera, a nearby restaurant.


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1 Comment »

  1. wow — how’d you get such great duty? It just goes to show that great women are recognized these days for their intelligence and compassion. It’s a far cry from the days when Justice O’Conor couldn’t get a job as a lawyer.

    Comment by wendy gordon — 10.29.2010 @ 3:05 pm

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