Passion for education sets News board member Mary McConnell apart

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

"She has genuine curiosity about things and is extremely bright," says pal Paul Cassell, the Ronald N. Boyce Presidential Professor of Criminal Law at the University of Utah law school, whose family often camped with the McConnell clan when he had offices a couple of doors down at the law school from Michael McConnell's. "He's a high-powered intellectual, and she's right up there with him in terms of intellectual fire power."

She is also "engaging, very diplomatic, open to hearing other points of view," Cassell says. "One of the neat things about Mary is she's a bridge builder. They would have dinner parties that would include Republicans and Democrats, a variety of religious faiths. … She was not someone who wanted to invite over just those who agreed with her. She likes new ideas and interesting perspectives."

McConnell figured her children could survive a year of class work in Utah with Mom, and that would let them travel and explore. She sought out other home-schoolers, and became active with the Salt Lake Christian home-school association. She was both interested and saddened that home-schoolers seemed divided along religious lines — members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and others. McConnell is not Mormon, but thought the division "quite a shame."

"While it is not my religion, I am sympathetic with aspects of LDS culture, and I thought my children benefited from a critical mass of students with values with which I am very comfortable," she says.

Of course, the plan changed. The year in Utah lasted 14. She home-schooled the kids for the first six — and cooked pot roast for dinner as an antidote when there was a bad day in the home classroom, says Harriet. When high school beckoned Harriet, the children went to public school again, where they all excelled. And McConnell wondered "what to be when I grew up."

Life answers come in weird packages. Hers was a phone call from the woman running the international baccalaureate program Harriet was enrolled in at West High. The IB history teacher had bailed; since McConnell had studied the topic at Oxford, would she mind stepping in at 7:30 every other morning? Otherwise, Harriet and her classmates couldn't earn a full IB diploma.

"They paid me custodial salaries — I lost money on it — but I loved the experience," she says. "I told my husband that, as my next career, I wanted to be a high school teacher."

Growing up in Indianapolis, the oldest of three girls, her mom a teacher, she'd never craved that job — until she tried it. But while she had a master's and was a Rhodes scholar, she had no teaching credentials. She'd have to get alternative certification, which required that she apply while already teaching. The district suggested she try a private school; the Catholic Diocese hired her to replace someone deployed to Iraq.

At Juan Diego High School, she launched a debate program, taught multiple Advanced Placement classes and made a circle of friends that found a way to keep her even after she moved with her husband to Stanford.

"We refuse to let her go completely," says Jim Duane, director of technology at the school and a close friend. "I can honestly say that Mary worked harder and devoted more time to lesson planning and paper correcting than any other teacher. She volunteered to take on a full load of upper-level Advanced Placement and concurrent classes, attracted large numbers of students to her class and received extremely high evaluations from them."

McConnell began each class with humorous political videos or current political cartoons. Harriet says she also dressed a little better than most of the teachers because she thought it set a good example for the students. Out hiking and exploring, she favors "weird-looking hats that are comfortable," says her daughter, who calls her mom "awesome."

"Ask her about anything and she'll be on your level," says Susan Tuite, an administrative assistant at Juan Diego High School. "She's so smart she can make you feel smart. … You can go to her house for dinner and feel like you've been there a million times. When some people leave, you miss them. She's one of those that leave a little mark on your heart."

But what people don't know, Tuite adds, is the compassion.

"(McConnell) would go to any lengths to make sure her students have what they need," she says. "She would buy books if somebody couldn't afford it. Nothing was a problem."

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