Sandra Day O’Connor: “Lazy B”

February 1, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT

GWEN IFILL: The book is Lazy B: Growing up on a Cattle Ranch in the American Southwest. The author is Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Justice O’Connor, of course, was the first woman appointed to sit on the Supreme Court. But long before she got to Washington, she lived a life we read about only in westerns. In Lazy B, she joins her brother, Alan, in recalling their memories of those times. Welcome, Justice O’Connor.

SANDRA DAY O’CONNOR, Author, Lazy B: Thank you. Well, it is a joint effort with my brother, Alan. And Alan ended up running the ranch for most of his adult years. And so he had lots of institutional memories of that amazing place.

GWEN IFILL: Well, tell us about the ranch, for those of us easterners or those of us who aren’t native to the Arizona-New Mexico border.

SANDRA DAY O’CONNOR: Well, it’s… It’s in the semi-arid high desert plateau region on the New Mexico-Arizona border, along the Gila River. And it gets very little rainfall a year, about ten inches a year — about 5,000 feet in elevation, other than the higher mountains to the South. And it’s just… It has a subtle beauty that the desert can have. But it’s maybe difficult for someone in the Northeast who’s used to seeing greenery all the time to appreciate that desert scene.

GWEN IFILL: What was unique about growing up on a ranch like that?

SANDRA DAY O’CONNOR: We were isolated. We had no neighbors, really. It was 35 miles to town. We would go to town once a week to get the mail and some groceries. And the people at the ranch, in my early years, were my parents and the cowboys who worked there.

GWEN IFILL: Who you write about extensively in this book.

SANDRA DAY O’CONNOR: Yes, because they were amazing people. And in that era, the cowboys tended to be single men, many of whom lived their entire lives at the Lazy B.

GWEN IFILL: You spend a lot of time in this book writing about a central feature of your life, which was the weather. And when it would rain, you described it as “an incredible gift from above, our salvation.” There’s a passage in the book I would like you to read on page 132 there, about rain, when rain came.

SANDRA DAY O’CONNOR: All right. “You know, rain was everything to us. And it’s what we did at the Lazy B, was look at the sky every day and hope we’d see rain clouds forming. And when they did, it was usually in the summer and usually in the late afternoon. And if a storm actually got there and produced a little rain, then we would watch with wonder the changed world about us.

The dry, dusty soil was wet, muddy, brown rivulets of water running down every slope and gully — the grass and plants sparkling with drops of water clinging to them — the greasewood bushes normally so gray-green and dull, releasing their incredible perfume, produced by the rain on their dense, oily leaves — the birds chirping frantically, the rabbits peeking out from their burrows — everything stirring and excited from the rain, and no one more excited than my father. We were saved again — saved from the ever- present threat of drought, of starving cattle, of anxious creditors. We would survive a while longer.”

GWEN IFILL: It was all about survival, wasn’t it?

SANDRA DAY O’CONNOR: It was all about survival and survival meant rain. And…

GWEN IFILL: Tell me– I’m sorry– tell me a little bit more about your father. You elude to your father and you write, and your brother writes in this book about how you were your father’s daughter.

SANDRA DAY O’CONNOR: I felt very close to him. But, of course, when I was little… How many children get to be with their parents all day, every day? And go to work with your father, so to speak. If a father goes off to the office, the child is probably not going to be with him all that time. And, yet, on the ranch when my father would go out around the ranch, he liked to have company and I’d go with him. And whatever it was, we’d be together. He was very intelligent, curious about everything, and loved to talk. And it was just quite an experience being with him.

GWEN IFILL: And your father, you called DA.

SANDRA DAY O’CONNOR: Yes, I think my younger sister started that when she was learning to spell, d-a-d-d-y. And DA stuck for my father and MO for my mother, short for m-o-t-h-e-r.

GWEN IFILL: One of the stories you tell about your dad in the book is when you first took your husband, John, to meet him for the first time. Could you describe it for us?

SANDRA DAY O’CONNOR: Well, I don’t know if you have time, but it was pretty funny, because John grew up in a city in San Francisco. He was definitely not a country boy. And when I took him out there, we were a little concerned. And when we arrived at the ranch one afternoon, my father was down in the corrals with the cowboys, branding some cattle. And it ended up that my father at first was too busy to talk. And then when he finally met John, he put some mountain oysters in the branding fire and made John eat them. Now, I guess you know what those are…

GWEN IFILL: For easterners… (Laughs) …For easterners who might not know what… How can we delicately describe that?

SANDRA DAY O’CONNOR: I don’t know if you can do it delicately, but when you brand a bull calf, and you don’t want it to grow up to be a bull, the testicles are removed, and they’re called, euphemistically, well, in our part of our country, mountain oysters.

GWEN IFILL: So your father gave them to your… This city boy fiancé of yours…

SANDRA DAY O’CONNOR: To eat, right there out of the branding fire.

GWEN IFILL: And that’s when you knew your husband could hang in for the long haul.

SANDRA DAY O’CONNOR: Well, yes. I think that was proof that he was pretty interested in me.

GWEN IFILL: (Laughs) Tell me another story — this one about you were filling in for the camp cook on a day of roundup. And it was your job to deliver the lunch to the cowboys…


GWEN IFILL: …And to your dad.

SANDRA DAY O’CONNOR: Yeah. Very important to a roundup crew to have lunch, and have it early. They usually liked lunch by about 10:00 A.M. because they’d been on their horses since daylight. And I was supposed to go to a very remote place on the ranch, and have the lunch ready when they were ready. And I’d gotten everything in the pickup truck and set off to meet them, and had a flat tire.

And, of course, it was a million miles from anyplace. And the truck was heavy. And the lug bolts hadn’t been off in years, I don’t think. And I had the worst time in the world getting the tire changed. It was really hard because the lug bolts were stuck. And I finally managed to do it, but it made me late for lunch. And I don’t think my father ever forgave me.

GWEN IFILL: (Laughs)

SANDRA DAY O’CONNOR: When I tried to explain and thought I had a pretty good excuse, he said, “Well, you should have started earlier.” (Laughs) I guess he was right.

GWEN IFILL: No excuses.


GWEN IFILL: So, this life that you led, how did you get from there– the remotest corner of America– to where you are today? How did you… Have you ever thought about how you’ve made that trek?

SANDRA DAY O’CONNOR: Well, it’s a little odd, the path I took, because when I was young, I wanted to be a cattle rancher. That was what I knew and that was what I liked. And I went off to Stanford, I was pretty young and pretty naive. And I had a professor I really loved, who was himself a lawyer. And I thought one reason he was so effective was his legal background. And because of him, really, I applied to law school. I didn’t know where it might lead or if I’d like it. But I loved the law school experience and graduated not having a plan for what to do, and having a lot of trouble getting work as a lawyer.

GWEN IFILL: How does… How… Obviously, it turned out well.

SANDRA DAY O’CONNOR: Turned out all right.

GWEN IFILL: It turned out all right. How does that experience now define you today?

SANDRA DAY O’CONNOR: The ranch experience?


SANDRA DAY O’CONNOR: Oh, that’s hard to say. It probably… It gives a person a little confidence, a little bit of self-reliance because you know you have to solve the problems yourself. You can’t always turn to other people to do them — a belief in independence.

GWEN IFILL: Well, that comes in handy on the Supreme Court.

SANDRA DAY O’CONNOR: Well, I guess it might. Some might call it a handicap.

GWEN IFILL: (Laughs) Sandra Day O’Connor… Justice O’Connor, thank you so much for joining us.

SANDRA DAY O’CONNOR: Thank you, Gwen.