O’Connor Remembered As Ambassador For Chautauqua County

Sandra Day O’Connor is pictured during one of her last visits to Chautauqua Institution. O’Connor died Friday at the age of 93. Photo by Chautauqua Institution

Even on a raised platform, the 8-foot-tall bronze statue of Robert H. Jackson towered over U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor as she stood at a lectern. However, it was O’Connor and her glass-shattering rise and advocacy for women’s rights that stood out that summer day in August 1996.

“Justice Jackson said we must regard public schools as the most fundamental concern of American society,” she said in her keynote speech of the statue’s unveiling outside Love Elementary School in Jamestown. “He believed a democratic society must provide free education to those who may be disadvantaged.”

O’Connor, who became an unofficial ambassador of Chautauqua County during her many visits over the years, died Friday at the age of 93.

“I think our community was definitely honored of having the presence of Sandra Day O’Connor in our midst,” said Gregory Peterson, co-founder and former director of the Robert H. Jackson Center in Jamestown. “She made it a point to vacation at Chautauqua Institution and was not shy about telling anyone who would listen how wonderful our little area was.”

O’Connor was the first woman to serve on the nation’s highest court; a native of Arizona, she was nominated in 1981 by President Ronald Reagan.

In addition to her visit in 1996, O’Connor twice spoke at the Robert H. Jackson Center and several times at Chautauqua Institution.

She discussed individual rights in an August 2004 lecture at Chautauqua.

“Triumphs over injustice can seem inevitable if we know how the story ends,” she said. “But our nation’s dedication to individual rights was hardly inevitable. It is the product of intermediary steps, of efforts from people who sometimes didn’t dare to expect victory.”

In 2007, two years after leaving the Supreme Court, O’Connor was back at Chautauqua. She gave attendees a lesson in the court’s notable “firsts,” including John Rutledge, a signer of the Declaration of Independence whose confirmation to the court was rejected by the U.S. Senate.

She also noted that to be a successful judge an individual has to learn from the past and be observant.

“You have to learn from what you’ve seen and you have to bring that knowledge to your practice of law and practice as a judge,” she said. “It was a fascinating experience working at work worth doing.”

Michael Hill, Chautauqua Institution president, released the following statement Friday: “We join the nation and world in mourning the passing of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. She was a dear friend to Chautauqua, an emblem of democracy, and a model for the pursuit of a just and virtuous life. Our lives are forever enriched from her example, and our prayers and hearts are with her family.”

O’Connor’s mark on the area was noted when she announced she was stepping down from the Supreme Court in the fall of 2005.

“We’re going to miss having a member of the court who is as close to Chautauqua and our region as she was,” said Rolland Kidder, at the time the executive director of the Robert H. Jackson Center. “She was and is a great fan of Robert Jackson. She felt that he, especially at Nuremberg, developed standards of what international justice is all about.”

Added then-Chautauqua Institution President Thomas Becker, “I knew this was in the offing at some point, though I did not foresee it happening this soon, nor did I see it at some point this year. Justice O’Connor is an extraordinary individual. She is able to bring light to real, serious complexities, one of which was the subject of a Chautauqua lecture.”

Peterson said his first real introduction to the Supreme Court justice occurred during her visit to Jamestown for the unveiling of the Jackson statue. In fact, Peterson said his wife “acted as her chauffeur” that day.

“It was a huge deal to have a justice attend,” Peterson said of the dedication ceremony, which attracted national media to the area.

O’Connor’s speech that day on Jackson, who served as an associate justice of the Supreme Court from 1941 to 1954, provided the early seeds to what would become the Robert H. Jackson Center years later. Jackson was born in nearby Warren County and was raised in Frewsburg.

The statue that O’Connor helped dedicate was later moved to the Jackson Center on East Fourth Street.

“She was a big ambassador for Chautauqua County, Chautauqua Institution and the Robert H. Jackson Center,” Peterson said Friday. “That legacy continues today. We’re proud of that relationship.”

In a 2007 visit, O’Connor was gifted a portrait of Jackson that now hangs in the U.S. Supreme Court.

“Justice Sandra Day O’Connor was a great friend to the Jackson Center, and we mourn her loss,” Kristan McMahon, Robert H. Jackson Center president, said in statement. “In the early days of the center, indeed even before the center existed, she was an advocate for Robert H. Jackson and his legacy. She helped open doors for years of center programming, both here and in Washington, DC. As a barrier-breaker, she was instrumental to elevating the aspirations of many generations of women and lawyers, including myself, for her commitment to the rule of law and civics education.”


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