Sandra Day O'ConnorHow the First Woman on the Supreme Court Became Its Most Influential Justice
Chapter One Pioneer Roots
To ready herself for the birth of her first child, Ada Mae Day left her home on an Arizona ranch and her husband of three years. She traveled two hundred miles east, to her mother's place in El Paso, Texas, to be near a city hospital. After baby Sandra was born on March 26, 1930, at the Hotel Dieu Hospital, Harry Day came by train to see Ada Mae and his new daughter. "Although I cannot say that I feel any great parental love for Sandra yet," Harry wrote to his wife upon his return to the Lazy B, "I would like to see her and touch her again."
Sandra was a mixed blessing for Harry. The deep passion he felt for Ada Mae was complicated by the infant, as was the burden of making a living from the dry expanse of the Lazy B. He could not abide separation from his young wife. "I wonder continually what you are doing, where you are, who you are with," he wrote to her a year after they married. "I wonder what you will be like when I see you again. Will you be changed? Somehow I am afraid you will be different." Harry's insecurities were ratcheted up by the looming Depression. Even before the arrival of this new mouth to feed, life was defined by scarcity. Too little water. Too few hands for the work to be done.
Decades later, as a Supreme Court justice, Sandra Day O'Connor would write a nostalgically sweet memoir of her ranch childhood. In it, her father, Harry, is painted as a rugged American type, a self-taught man who would become the greatest single influence on her life. Yet, beneath the Gary Cooper of her portrayal, was a man who bequeathed a complex legacy to his children. Harry Day was harsh, demanding, and unpredictable. But Sandra left the Lazy B with a lesson in the virtues of hard work, a talent for maneuvering among tough characters, and a competitive drive that sustained her through a journey no woman had taken before.
Harry Day was the fifth and last child of Henry Clay Day, who headed off from Vermont in the mid-1870s to make his fortune. The father, named for the Whig politician Henry Clay, had worked his family's farm in Coventry, Vermont, until 1865, when he turned 21. Then he moved west, first laboring in a general merchandise store on the Canadian border, and later opening his own building-supply business in Wichita, Kansas. There, when he was 35, he met and married Alice Edith Hilton, 18, the daughter of a rector in the Episcopal Church. With his angular New England visage, bushy mustache, and stone-faced demeanor, H. C. Day was marked by his Yankee heritage. But he also could not stay put. He constantly looked for fresh adventures and travel.
In 1880, Day sought acreage in the newly opened public lands of the New Mexico Territory for the grazing of livestock. Down in Mexico, he bought a herd of cattle and settled on a parcel of his new land south of the Gila River, on what would become the border between New Mexico and Arizona. The Mexican cattle had been branded on the left hip with a B lying down flat - a "lazy" B. So, he named his ranch for the brand, and it endured as the Lazy B through the generations. Joining the rush for open range, H. C. Day arrived just as cattle-grazing conditions were becoming harder for ranchers. Dry spells and overstocking were quickly destroying the arid and fragile land. Cattle prices were tumbling. The pioneers were being sorely tested.
Day hired a foreman to manage operations at the Lazy B, began taking steps to move his family to the more pleasant environs of Pasadena, California, and continued his travels, now to England and Germany. The flinty New Englander wanted to be based in California, in a promising city where the orange trees blossomed year round, but Day soon discovered that the ranch foreman was stealing from him. So, he brought his family back to the Gila River valley and the Lazy B, where he built a house and a one-room school for his children. The youngest of H. C.'s and Alice's children, Harry was born at that ranch house in 1898 and lived there until he was about 10 years old. H. C. Day, by then, had a foreman he trusted, and California continued to beckon. He moved his wife and children back to the sweetness of Pasadena. An athletic boy with an attractive smile, young Harry thrived in city schools. He won state swimming awards. So pleased was he to graduate in 1918 from Pasadena High School that he saved his fancy, typeset commencement program and high school picture until the day he died. Harry wore the trappings of city life well. In photographs from these years, Harry looks the dashing young fellow in blazer and cap. He had hopes of college and travel to exotic places.
H. C. was preoccupied, as usual, with his business enterprises. As a father, he was more aloof than affectionate. On the other hand, Harry's mother, Alice, doted on the boy. When he was away from home, she wrote him long, worried letters about whether he had enough clothes to keep warm and whether he was taking care of himself. "Be a good boy and don't lift heavy things or do anything else to injure yourself," she wrote at one point. From both parents, Harry received a sense for business and handling financial affairs.
Harry's dream, born in his Pasadena years, was to attend Stanford University. But as he graduated from high school, Harry was drafted for World War I. The war, however, ended before he saw any action. Then, in 1919, H. C. Day's health slipped and, as he worried about the ranch's finances, he sent Harry, the second of his two sons, to check on its operation. Harry, then 21 years old, found the land a terrible place to live, and hoped to stay at the Lazy B only long enough to make some money and then find someone else to run it....