Passion for education sets News board member Mary McConnell apart

Published: Sunday, Sept. 19 2010 1:04 a.m. MDT

Mary McConnell sits at a recruiting table at Juan Diego High.

Juan Diego High School

SALT LAKE CITY — Recently, Mary McConnell and her oldest daughter, Harriet, set out on a "short, flat walk" up to the base of a cliff. It was an interesting walk with lively conversation, so when a sign indicated a lake somewhere on the mountain — one of Mary McConnell's passions — they walked until they reached the very top.

"We accidentally hiked about 14 miles, mostly uphill," Harriet says.

A Rhodes Scholar who interrupted a meteoric career arch for a few years of home schooling, Mary McConnell doesn't mind side jaunts and detours and new destinations if something interesting beckons. And it seems it is always worth the trip.

McConnell served as chief legislative assistant for the late Congressman Jack Kemp, for whom she worked on enterprise zone legislation. She was a speech writer for Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and later for President Ronald Reagan, and held other prestigious jobs — before home schooling her three children, then launching an unexpected career as a high school teacher and debate coach.

Now McConnell and her husband, Michael, a former federal judge who directs the Stanford Constitutional Law Center, are members of the new Deseret News Editorial Advisory Board.

"My career progression has been a slightly odd one, perhaps not unusual for women with children," McConnell says.

McConnell's early career was filled with all kinds of people. Once, while on maternity leave with baby Harriet, she got a call from Colin Powell, then Weinberger's military assistant, who coaxed her in to write a speech. But when Powell stopped by to see how she was doing, the month-old baby was howling.

"So he slings her over his shoulder," remembers McConnell, "and I wrote the speech while he hauled her around the Pentagon."

McConnell wrote Reagan's famed Star Wars speech, but not the Star Wars part, which was a last-minute addition.

"The rest of the speech was not as memorable," she laughs.

They left the Beltway when her husband got a professorship at the University of Chicago law school. She wrote a humorous account of what happened after that. It was a Friday night of a particularly bad week. Coming back from a business trip, she caught a cold. He was swamped chairing the law school's appointment committee and teaching and researching and writing.

"Our older daughter's fourth-grade teacher had recently hinted darkly that Harriet might not be ready to make the big jump to middle school," McConnell recalls. "Our younger daughter, Emily, was hanging out with a third-grade, 19-year-old wannabe who sassed back to her mother at every turn; I was beginning to hear bratty echoes at home. Our once-cheerful toddler son, Sam, was getting into regular fights at preschool."

The immediate cure was a date night, where they watched "A River Runs Through It," set in the serene Montana mountains. Afterward, over an Italian dinner, she "indulged in a little harmless fantasy," proposing they move to Montana for a year to live in a log cabin and home-school the kids.

His response: "I know more people in Utah."

They're high-energy, capable people. Within days, he'd taken a one-year visiting appointment at the University of Utah law school and she'd ended a decade as a public issues consultant and was ordering text books to teach her kids.

Time out? Her daughters were horrified, she wrote. And Sam, then 4, was "probably relieved that somebody else in the family was getting a timeout."

The move led to a new circle of friends who describe McConnell as funny, passionate and kind.

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