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Sandra Day O'Connor Discusses Making History During Stockton College Appearance

She was the inaugural speaker for The Pappas Visiting Scholar Series at Stockton.

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor (Photo provided by The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey)
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor (Photo provided by The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey)
Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor spoke of the need to teach civics to young people during her appearance at The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey Monday night.

The first woman to serve on the Supreme Court told about 3,000 spectators on the college’s Galloway campus that she started www.iCivics.org, a web site with lessons and games that teach young people how government works, to get them involved.

Her goal is to get high schools and elementary schools in all 50 states to begin teaching civics, as she has been told the subject will be the focus of questions on upcoming college entrance exams.

She was the inaugural speaker for The Pappas Visiting Scholar Series at Stockton. She was appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1981, and served until 2006. She was awarded the nation's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, by President Barack Obama in 2009.

On Monday, Stockton College President Herman J. Saatkamp and Executive Vice President Harvey Kesselman presented her with an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters degree.

The moderator for her speech was Thomas Wilner, who successfully represented Guantanamo detainees before the Supreme Court in 2004 and 2008. He is the head of Shearman and Sterling’s International Trade and Investment Practice in Washington, D.C.

O’Connor took a series of questions from Wilner, reciting stories that ranged from growing up on a ranch with no telephone and no electricity to being at the top of her class at Stanford Law and not being able to get one job interview.

Finally she got a job at the office of the county attorney in Redwood City, CA, but they didn’t pay her at first.

“Finally, they did,” she said. 

O’Connor said she thinks women’s rights are progressing, but “there’s no easy answer” to the problems of having a career and raising children.

When asked by Wilner if men should step it up, she said: “They probably should, but it’s not likely to happen.”

She recounted how Reagan said he would appoint a female to the Supreme Court if he was elected, and recalled the phone call in which she learned she would be part of history.

“I’d like to announce your nomination for the Supreme Court tomorrow - is that all right with you?’ Reagan told her when he called

“I’d be honored,” she said.

“Fine, we’ll take care of it,” he said and hung up O’Connor recalled.

She said it was a few months before she became acclimated to her new responsibilities, and she was glad when Ruth Bader Ginsburg was named a justice.

Dean Pappas, who is vice chairman of the Board of Trustees, and his wife, Zoe, donated $1 million to establish the Dean C. and Zoe S. Pappas Visiting Scholar Endowment Fund in 2012. The Pappas Visiting Scholar Series is designed to bring noted scholars and thought leaders to Stockton for classes, workshops and public events.

Pappas has said he underwent “a transformational experience” as an undergraduate college student at Dickinson College in 1961, when he heard the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speak. 

“Until that point I was sort of drifting my way through college, but Dr. King’s message was very impressive,” said Pappas. “It made me start to think more seriously about my future. Basically, his message was to act responsibly. It was a moment that changed my life.”

Pappas said he wanted students at Stockton to have similar access to outstanding visiting scholars.

--Information provided by The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey

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