Sandra Day O’Connor Was My Mom. Here’s How I’ll Remember Her.

March 2024

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Sandra Day O'Connor dancing with her husband

SWEPT OFF THEIR FEET: Sandra Day O'Connor and John O'Connor, who met while editing a Stanford Law Review article together, would one day become known as the best dancers in Washington, D.C. Photo: Karin Cooper/Getty Images

First is the title of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s biography, and perhaps the word most associated with her. But family is a close second. When former law clerk Michelle Friedland, ’94, JD ’00, published a 2006 tribute to her former boss in Stanford, family represented no fewer than four of the 1,304 words she chose (others included husband, sons, and grandclerk).

O’Connor, ’50, LLB ’52, who died December 1, was an integral part of the Stanford family, and Stanford an integral part of hers. Her intellectual forebear was law professor Harry Rathbun, Class of 1916, Engr. ’20, JD ’29, whom she credited as inspiring her to seek a life of purpose, logical reasoning, and constructive change. She met the man who would become her husband, the late John Jay O’Connor III, ’51, LLB ’53, when they worked on a Stanford Law Review article together. As an alumna, she served on the Board of Trustees, on the advisory councils for Stanford in Washington and for the Bill Lane Center for the American West, and twice as a commencement speaker.

O’Connor’s Stanford legacy lives on in two of her three sons, Scott, ’79, and Jay, ’84. Scott remembers carrying a flag in his commencement processional, which enabled him to sit near his mother, then a trustee. “That was really fun for me,” he says. “She wasn’t famous then.” By the time Jay graduated, O’Connor had become the first woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. 

Both Scott and Jay gave eulogies for O’Connor in December. Jay’s, delivered at the Washington National Cathedral on December 19, is excerpted below.

I would like to share with all of you a son’s personal portrait of the human side of our mother, focusing on what she loved, what she believed, and what she was like—especially as a mom.

I should note that I have asked the choir to break into a lively song if my emotions get the better of me.

Her first love was the Lazy B Ranch in Arizona where she was raised, a place where she would look out across the rugged high desert, unobstructed by trees, and she could see forever.

She loved books. Growing up at the Lazy B and living 30 miles from town was an isolating experience. Books transported her to another place as a young girl, and ultimately led her to Stanford University and beyond.

She loved the law and the Supreme Court.

She loved our country and our democracy.

And most of all, she loved her family. 

From her father, she learned toughness.

From her mother, she learned how to handle any situation with grace.

Her relationship with her husband, our dad, John O’Connor, was one for the ages. They were the ultimate supporters and fans of one another in a marriage that lasted 57 years.

Despite our colorful flaws, she loved her three sons. And she adored her daughters-in-law and the grandchildren that followed.

In 2006, at nearly 76, she stepped down from the Supreme Court. Obviously, after her long, incredible career, it was time to kick back, play golf, and drink margaritas, right? Not for Sandra Day O’Connor. She saw a big problem looming in the country, and she decided she needed to do something about it.

She had become concerned that citizens were increasingly disengaged from their democracy. She looked to the future, and she saw so clearly—decades before anyone else—that our democracy could not be taken for granted. 

So she started a nonprofit called iCivics to teach young people about how our government and our democracy work, using online, interactive, role-based games and great content. All for free. Today, iCivics is used by half of middle and high school kids in the country, and over half the schools.

To you business types, let me put her iCivics accomplishment another way: At the age of 78, our mom founded and led a hot, tech-based, nonprofit start-up. Within 10 years, she had achieved over 85 percent market share and 50 percent market penetration.

Church is a place for confession, and I feel the need to come clean today on a family secret we’ve protected for decades related to this very topic. Years ago, while going through my mom’s papers, I came across a box containing her report cards from middle school and high school. Of course her marks were sterling  . . . until I was shocked to see something: a B, a scarlet B in the first trimester of one of her classes. And imagine which class it was in. Civics! Sandra Day O’Connor once got a B in civics. In the presence of the president, Supreme Court justices, and all of you today, I ask you this: Based on her 40-year dedication to promoting the rule of law and democracy at home and abroad, do you think she has earned enough extra credit to raise that lowly B in civics to an A?

What was she like?

She was a force of nature.

When she walked into a room, everything was more vivid. She willed things into action. People had a very hard time saying no to her—except her three sons and some of her lively colleagues on the Supreme Court.

She had “unearthly energy,” as one of her law clerks said of her.

  • Her way of relaxing after a long workday was to play three sets of tennis or 18 holes of golf.
  • She would often drag her clerks out on big outings or hikes each year, rain or shine.
  • She brainwashed us as kids to think our turbocharged level of family activities was normal. Did we really need to go to three family parties and a square dance—yes, a square dance—all in one night? It was not normal!

‘ Don’t hit your brother!’ was the first lesson in her own philosophy that she taught us over time—to not lash out at anyone, even your opponent.

Mom and Dad absolutely loved to dance, and they were known as the best dancers in Washington. In this city, it was not uncommon for the dance floor to clear the moment they stepped onto it, hand in hand. In the late ’70s in Arizona, they actually took lessons in disco dancing.

Quick survey of the justices of the Supreme Court here with us today. Raise your hand if you have received technical training in disco dancing! That’s what I thought. My mom is the first person on the Supreme Court with technical training in disco dancing.

And what was she like as a mom?

While having a very demanding full-time professional career, she was still a mom in every sense, and she ran absolutely everything at our home: organizing the household, outstanding cooking, grocery shopping, getting the kids where we needed to be, planning our social calendars, taking care of her mother-in-law, everything. All while still achieving extraordinary things at work. My brothers and I had a front-row seat, and we still wonder how she did it.

She varied her approaches with each of her sons, based on our different interests and personalities.

With her hard-charging eldest son, Scott, getting him to 5:30 a.m. swim practice each morning helped him become an All-American swimmer at Stanford.

With her thrill-seeking middle son, Brian, it was a different story and a different approach. When Brian was in high school, he decided to secretly take hang gliding lessons. He knew our parents wouldn’t be thrilled. When my mom discovered a receipt Brian had accidentally dropped on his bedroom floor—smooth move, Brian—there was quite a discussion that night at the dinner table.

Our parents said to Brian, “Hang gliding is literally the most dangerous sport in the world. We give you boys a lot of latitude, but we draw the line at hang gliding. For all we care, you could take up parachuting.”

So naturally, the next weekend, Brian took up parachuting. And now, 2,500 jumps later, he’s an elite-level parachutist and does 50-man formations.

As for her approach with me, one important dimension was that my mom typed all my papers in school until I took typing class in junior year in high school. Let me tell you, nothing quite focuses the mind like having Sandra Day O’Connor read and type all your English essays.

To her tremendous credit, she never took out her red editing pen on my papers. She typed them exactly as written. It must have been torture for her. I can assure you that her law clerks did not enjoy this same special treatment.

On the Court she was known for almost always asking the first questions at oral argument—searing questions that cut to the heart of the case. Where do you think she developed those world-class interrogation skills? Once she arrived at the Supreme Court? Hardly. She finely honed those techniques from years of grilling her three sons about what time we came home on Saturday night. To the trial attorneys of America, you’re welcome.

What were our mom’s maxims for us as kids—the sayings she drilled into us over and over again?

  • “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it at all.”
  • “Get it done.”
  • And her most repeated command of all: “Don’t hit your brother!”

And amazingly, these very maxims were some of the exact same strategies she used to make herself so successful in life and on the Supreme Court. I’m serious.

“Don’t hit your brother!” was the first lesson in her own philosophy that she taught us over time—to not lash out at anyone, even your opponent. And to treat everyone with kindness and respect. This approach allowed her to navigate every situation with grace and goodwill.

In 1987, she wrote out by longhand a letter to her three sons and sealed it, not to be opened until near the end of her life. Included were detailed instructions about what should happen when she died. This included what she wanted at her funeral, her favorite music to include, some key readings, and more. The unmistakable theme of her selections was justice on Earth. It won’t surprise you to know that we are following her instructions to a T.

And in the letter to us, she also wrote her final message to her sons. This included the following passage:

“Our purpose in life is to help others along the way. May you each try to do the same.”

What a beautiful, powerful, and totally Sandra Day O’Connor sentiment. And it is so clear to Scott, Brian, and me that she lived her own life in complete accord with this purpose.

Jay O’Connor, ’84, is the interim CEO at Voicesmanaging partner at Silver Tree Associates, and a venture capital advisory partner. Email him at

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