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In 1996, graduates of Austin High School in El Paso received an unexpected delight.
Their well-known classmate, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, made a surprise appearance at their 50th reunion.
O’Connor’s return to El Paso was a heartwarming experience for her. She expressed her joy by saying, “How wonderful it is to be back. I’m pleased to see I haven’t completely forgotten how it all looks. It’s fun to see the faces of people I knew here and find out what their lives have been like.”
O’Connor passed away at the age of 93, five years after stepping back from public life due to an early dementia diagnosis. Although she was more closely associated with Arizona due to her early career, her roots in El Paso made her a source of pride for Texans.
El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser expressed, “Justice O’Connor was El Paso’s daughter — attending Radford School for Girls and Austin High School — and a trailblazer in this country. We will always remember her, and now we will cherish her incredible legacy. May she rest in peace.”
During her time at Austin High School, O’Connor was recognized for her spirited nature and innate leadership qualities, knowledge that served her well as the first female Supreme Court justice.
Talking about O’Connor, her high school friend and former classmate Gayle Welsch mentioned, “Oh, we always expected great things of her. She was an outstanding student. And now she’s still so down-to-earth and easy to talk to. We’re all so proud of her.”
O’Connor had her formative years at the Lazy B Ranch in southeast Arizona, gaining skills like driving a truck, mending a fence, and firing a .22 rifle.
Born in El Paso on March 26, 1930, O’Connor spent her early years in both Texas and Arizona. Graduating sixth in her class from Austin High in 1946, she then attended Stanford University and earned an economics degree.
After Stanford, O’Connor pursued law at Stanford Law School, where she met her future husband and stood out among the top graduates, along with her future Supreme Court colleague, William H. Rehnquist.
Returning to Arizona after law school, O’Connor became involved in Republican politics and held various public offices before being nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court by President Ronald Reagan in 1981.
A champion for equal protection under the law, O’Connor was known for her concurring opinion in the landmark case Lawrence v. Texas, supporting gay rights.
Texans celebrated O’Connor’s ties to their state by inducting her into the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame and the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame. Numerous schools in Texas are named in her honor.
Reflecting on the time he argued before Justice O’Connor in 2005 as Texas attorney general, Gov. Greg Abbott said, “As our country’s first woman on the Supreme Court, Justice O’Connor was a trailblazer and remained an inspiration to women throughout her lifetime.”
State Rep. Eddie Morales, Jr., urged people to send prayers to the O’Connor family, remembering her trailblazing legacy and commitment to the law and U.S. Constitution.