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Passion for education sets News board member Mary McConnell apart

Published: Thursday, July 30 2015 8:05 p.m. MDT

Mary McConnell sits at a recruiting table at Juan Diego High. (Juan Diego High School) 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.

Mary McConnell (Juan Diego High School) Mary McConnell (Juan Diego High School)

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.

"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."

Under McConnell, the debate club brought home first dozens of awards, then a full gross of trophies, Juan Diego's Molly Dumas says.

On one debate trip to Chicago, she took her squad to a Cubs game, then dozed through most of it. They pretended not to notice but playfully asked her questions about the game for the rest of the trip. She bluffed her way through, says Duane, who admired her moxie and her dedication to the students.

"She follows through, she knows what she's doing and she completes a job. How many people can you say that about?" he adds.

Though she now lives in California, McConnell is developing a writing program for the school and teaches students online how to write great essays. And while she's thought of teaching in California, the McConnell's are empty-nesters now — Harriet's at Harvard, finishing up. Emily is married and moving to San Diego, where she will study to be a midwife. And Sam, a baby no more, graduated from Juan Diego and is studying theology at Calvin College.

Her years in the classroom, she says, have made her "an unabashed advocate of educational choice" because different things work for different kids.

"I am a believer in dialogue, and one of the things I hope to write about is that it is interesting to have the experience of being in a home-school community and a bricks-and-mortar community. They have a lot to learn from each other," McConnell says.

It interests her that when charter schools fail, it's considered a failure of charter schools in general.

"Most new businesses do in fact fail, and it doesn't mean it was a bad idea or we don't need innovation," she says. "But innovation never means guaranteed success. We should look at why they succeed and don't."

Fun for McConnell often has an outdoor element. She loves to garden. And she keeps a toehold in Utah, spending summers just minutes from Capitol Reef.

"There's nothing like a half day on the trail to clear your head and the other half in front of the computer, writing," she says.

e-mail: lois@desnews.com

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