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Museum set to open O’Connor exhibition

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Museum set to open O’Connor exhibition

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor was a cowgirl all her life, even after she became the first female Supreme Court Justice.

A new exhibition, “The Cowgirl Who Became a Justice: Sandra Day O’Connor,” is set to open Thursday at the Western Heritage Museum and Lea County Cowboy Hall of Fame. The exhibit showcases the youthful life of this iconic pioneer up to her days serving on the bench.

A free reception for the public begins at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday.

The exhibit focuses on the young Sandra Day, who spent much of her youth at her Irish-American family’s Lazy B Ranch near Duncan, a small town in Arizona, just west of the New Mexico border.

Growing up on this large, isolated ranch that encompasses both Arizona and New Mexico, she was expected to do everything the ranch needed done, like learning to drive at the age of seven, mending fences and riding with the cowboys.

“It’s truly an amazing exhibition on a not-so-typical life,” said Darrell Beauchamp, Western Heritage’s director. “Visitors will come to understand this remarkable woman, and the impact she had on American society.”

Artifacts from Justice O’Connor’s life will be on display including her spurs, chaps, her robe from the Supreme Court, letters from Ronald Reagan, family photographs and much more. Arid desert scenes are juxtaposed with the confirmation hearings and publicity that surrounded the future Justice.

“Justice O’Connor grew up in an all-male society, and the lessons she learned there continued through her entire life,” said Beauchamp. “This exhibition illustrates the legacy she has given and demonstrated for the current Supreme Court Justices.”

Visitors will also have the opportunity to play iCivics, the web-based, interactive computer game designed to teach students about American history, law, and government, to inspire their active participation in democracy. Partnering with the exhibit, iCivics will show visitors what it is like to be president, work as a legislator on the federal budget, or make a decision as a Supreme Court Justice.

Since her retirement in 2006, O’Connor has been active in the creation and launch of iCivics. She conceived the idea after learning that nationwide two out of three students tested poorly on civics tests, and that currently only 29 states require high school students to take a civics or a government course.

“While most students can name one of the judges on ‘American Idol,’” said Justice O’Connor, “few can name the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.”

As visitors tour the exhibit they will learn about O’Connor’s life before her Supreme Court confirmation.

After graduating high school at the age of 16, Justice O’Connor continued her education at Stanford University, and eventually its Law School. She graduated third in her class out of 102 in 1952. That same year, she married John Jay O’Connor, III. The only job she was offered in the private sector was as a legal secretary. After three sons and a private law practice, she worked as an assistant state attorney general, then served as an Arizona state Senator, where she became the first woman majority leader in the United States. In 1974, she won a hard-fought election to state judgeship, was appointed to the Arizona Court of Appeals in 1979, and in 1981, was nominated by President Ronald Reagan as an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court. She brought to the Court experience from all three branches of state government, and was the only sitting justice who had been elected to public office. She retired in 2006, and wrote her childhood memoirs, “Lazy B: Growing Up on a Cattle Ranch in the American Southwest,” which became a best seller.

“The Cowgirl Who Became a Justice: Sandra Day O’Connor” will be on display through Nov. 4. The exhibition was organized by the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame in Fort Worth. It is the only museum in the world dedicated to honoring women of the American West who have displayed extraordinary courage in their trailblazing efforts. O’Connor was inducted into its Hall of Fame in 2002.

For more information, send emails to dbeauchamp@nmjc.edu or call 575-492-2678.

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