What Defines You?

A Review of Mary Ann Connell's Memoir, An Unforeseen Life

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Posted in 2016

I sat anxiously as Mary Ann Connell took the podium at our fall membership meeting. She opened her presentation with the same story that opens her book: the tragic death of her brother, Billy Strong. At a very young age, Ms. Connell watched her only sibling die, and our hearts went out to her as she described the accident. To begin both a book and a speech with such a raw, human experience proves that Ms. Connell is what we all must strive to be — authentic and courageous. The experience motivated her to be a high-achiever for the rest of her life, working hard to ensure that she honored her late-brother's memory.

It was tempting to open this review on a lighter note. But that's not how Ms. Connell opened her story, and this is her story, not mine. We should not gloss over the defining moments of our lives just because they are difficult. Ms. Connell is a remarkable person because of her perspective: "I got nothing I asked for but all that I hoped for, and I am among all people most richly blessed." (P. 300)

Mary Ann Connell was born in Louisville, Mississippi. Her father was a prominent lawyer — the Atticus Finch of the town. "[F]rom the time [she] was eight years old," Ms. Connell wanted "to be as kind and loving and gracious as [her] mother and as good a lawyer as [her] father. The path to emulating [her] mother was open to [her]; the path to being a good lawyer was seldom open to a girl." (P. 296)

But Mary Ann Connell forged her own path. After achieving great academic success at Ole Miss, she married Bill Connell and moved to the Mississippi Delta. A lifelong learner, she returned to Ole Miss for a master's degree in history, and then another master's in library science. And then, in the fall of 1973, she enrolled in her first law school class. She kept it a secret from Bill at first, but he eventually found her out. To maintain the balance expected of women in the 1970s, Ms. Connell attended law school while raising four children (one a newborn), serving as a Girl Scout leader, teaching Sunday school, and attending social functions with Bill. As time progressed, Bill became "downright supportive" of his wife's incredible success in law school, taking one or more of their daughters on photography trips to allow for uninterrupted study time before exams. As she described it, "[w]hat started as deceit on my part (and male chauvinism on Bill's) evolved into a mutual effort and shared pride in the end. Bill's views of what women — and his wife in particular — could do had changed drastically over a four-year period." (P. 118)

Ms. Connell's legal career took her from private practice to a thirty-year career as Ole Miss's university attorney, and then back again to private practice. The stories of Ms. Connell's time at Ole Miss are a must-read. In her first year, she effectively discouraged the Klan from having a parade on campus. She worked with different Chancellors with ease, gaining their trust each time with her legal expertise, diplomacy, and creativity. She served as president of the National Association of College and University Attorneys. She handled incredibly difficult NCAA investigations. She received her LL.M. from Harvard Law School (explaining that she wanted to take a Harvard education and return to Mississippi to help make it a better place). She spearheaded efforts to make Ole Miss more accommodating to disabled students. She chaired a committee to make the university Title IX compliant in athletics. She taught. She issued guidelines for prohibited items at athletic events, which in effect removed the Confederate flag from stadiums (without running afoul of the Constitution).

No story is safe from Ms. Connell, and I enjoyed her willingness to tease her former classmates and students (many of whom are now distinguished members of our profession). Her humor helps to balance the gravity of some intense life experiences. And her sense of humor pairs well with her sincerity, humility, and resilience.

To Ms. Connell – Thank you for sharing your regrets and your triumphs so freely. It was a gift to read your story. Your life may have been unforeseen thus far, but it has also been extraordinary, just like your spirit.

  1. Alicia Hall is President of the Jackson Young Lawyers Association and a member of the CABA Board.