16th Annual Achieving Dreams Celebration GalaRetired Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor
October 15, 2022
Thank you Judge [Annalisa] Williams [Akron Municipal Court]. And good evening, Board President Maura Scanlon Bozzelli, and members of the Board of Directors, Past Board President Pamela Valentine, and Executive Director Jaqueline Silas-Butler, co-chairs of the event. Honorary co-chairs: Christine Fowler-Mack and Dr. David James, and the “Grad champions” and staff of ProjectGRAD.
And thanks to all of you here tonight who came to support the scholarships that help the young people build a future and to celebrate the families and students who have grown and benefited from this program over the last 20 years.
For each of you that has donated your time, talents, and funding -- I hope you are filled with pride tonight in the young people you have nurtured – and those you continue to nurture. There are other programs to help kids get to college and those that help along the way. What is unique and admirable about ProjectGrad is the support for the youngest kids and their families through to high school graduation and then college.
College is the beginning of your dreams.
Leaving the life they have known– whether college is around the corner or across the country – is a big step. It is exciting. It is scary. College can help achieve their dreams. But in college our dreams may change.
Anyone who has been to college can tell you about the people they met. I was fascinated by my fellow students – wanted to find out more about them. Ask them about their backgrounds. I learned of families so different from my own, different culture and traditions, interests and hobbies. And through that, I learned more about myself.
Diversity is an underappreciated quality in our world. Embracing the diversity of people in college is life changing. When you gain a whole new field of vision, that really opens up possibilities. When you see more options in the world, don’t hesitate to let your dreams evolve, too.
It would be a wonderful thing if your master plan works out, but there is nothing wrong with reinventing yourself a thousand times in college. It’s a time of evolution.
As a college student, I never dreamed of the Supreme Court. Didn’t know much about it at all. Didn’t know to dream about it.
I had my undergraduate degree. We celebrate graduation is an achievement and we’re better prepared for what’s next. But take care not to define graduation as a culmination. Instead of the finish line, let’s think of it as a transition point. Because for many, graduation marks a fork in the road.
Some graduate with jobs, having performed an internship. And they’re off to realize their dreams. Some people think that identifying a goal and making a plan to reach that goal is all there is to a career. The flaw in that straight-to-the-goal approach is that while trying to go from point A to point Z, wearing blinders, you may miss great opportunities along the way.
Your career, like mine, could involve some very interesting twists and turns. Whatever your age, do not miss them. The best part of life happens in the interesting twists and turns.
You see, I thought I wanted to be a doctor then a teacher but look where I ended up.
It's only by experiencing things that you learn what you want and don't want...and deciding what you don't want is just as valuable.
Get prepared by being a lifelong learner.
I was finishing up a master's program in education. And I decided after my student teaching experience that I really didn't want to teach. That was a valuable lesson and I thank God that I didn't pursue teaching. And believe me, there are thousands of students who benefited from my decision not to teach.
The journey to the future is not always easy nor expected. That doesn’t make it any less worthwhile. Training as an educator -- people I experienced along the way-- enriched me. And in ways large and small they’re incorporated into the person standing before you tonight.
I believe the road to an unfulfilling and meaningless life is smooth and straight. The road to greatness is steep and arduous.
Many of us in this room have tried things and failed. The adversity we are bound to encounter experiencing life’s twists and turns can ultimately bring fulfillment, and ultimately, wisdom.
So, don’t be afraid. We are better, stronger, smarter for the failures, if we look at them from a different angle.
I will grant you that adversity will not always feel like it's leading you in the right direction but trust me it is.
I've had to explore my leadership potential and develop my own leadership style even before those quote-unquote leadership roles materialized.
Vagabond or Supreme Court Justice?
In 1977 I gave myself two options...bum around Europe or go to law school. I applied to Cleveland Marshall Law School and if I wasn't accepted, I would bum around Europe to see what opportunities would present themselves.
I was accepted to law school, and I never got to bum around Europe...she said wistfully.
So, I went to law school at a time when there were few women taking that path.
Obviously, my law degree opened many opportunities for public service work as a magistrate, judge, county prosecutor, lieutenant governor and member of the Supreme Court of Ohio.
While I've served in all those roles, one job didn't necessarily lead to another.
However, each step along the way prepared me for another. And I prepared myself by working hard. I also paid attention and learned from my mentors and colleagues. To this day, I find it so important to listen to a variety of opinions. There is always something new to learn, a different perspective we may not see because of our inherent bias. So, it is critical that to listen -- to weigh the input from others who may see something we miss.
Whether it's positive or negative, there are lessons to be had in just about every situation.
Be Open to Opportunity; to Changing the Plan.
I started out in law practice by hanging out a shingle and taking criminal appointments, representing small businesses in the community, and by taking probate cases. I was trying cases. I loved trial work. It was interesting and stimulating. I worked hard for my clients, and I had success at it. Judges appointed me to all kinds of interesting cases. Clients referred other clients; I was on a path.
When you work hard and do your best, you will have success and you will be noticed.
I practiced in Summit County. There was an opening for a magistrate on the probate court. I had handled cases in probate court, and I guess I impressed a long-serving magistrate. I was asked to consider becoming a magistrate. But when I was asked to apply, I thought about it.
It was not the path that I had envisioned but I was excited to try something new and very different.
I found that I loved the job and got great satisfaction from helping others in a court room setting. I learned so much law but also learned so much about myself.
It was not part of my plan. Yet, that was the beginning of my career in public service, and it has been 37 years since that decision. My point is, when you do your best –you are noticed, opportunities present themselves.
Make decisions purposefully.
Working on the probate court, I became interested in local politics. And I got politically involved. I watched the common pleas judges and thought, I can do that. And becoming a common pleas judge was then my goal.
As I said I became active in politics. Helping my boss the probate judge when he ran and running myself a few times without success. But that was OK because I was ‘paying my dues.’ I knew that there were several judgeships that would be opening due to retirements. I knew the governor made the appointments. I knew that the local party put forth names of preferred candidates to the governor.
It wasn’t rocket science to figure out the system.
The local party recommended me, and Governor Voinovich appointed me. 2 years later I was elected to the common pleas bench with 70% of the vote. I attribute it to doing my very best, which earned me a reputation for solving problems, large and small.
And being a judge was a good job. I was challenged. I was serving the people. I experienced the diversity of people that has always fascinated and enriched me. Some judges serve in that job for their entire career. And I thought I would be a common pleas judge for the rest of my career. That’s how it usually goes.
But the long-time prosecutor was elected to the Court of Appeals, I saw an opportunity to do good things, and serve in a different way. Service has been a constant in my career plan. The opportunity presented itself and I was uniquely qualified to fill the opening.
I left my judgeship to become the prosecutor. I was Summit County’s first woman prosecutor. I am one of only a very small number of women who have ever served as a county prosecutor in Ohio.
I knew that the office would be a challenge…after all The Children’s Defense Fund rated the office’s operation of CSEA 87th out of 88th in the state. I knew there was only one way to go and that was up. I knew I had the background for it. I hired the right people who were more than up to the task…I knew the work. I knew we would work hard and make a difference. And we did. Two years after I took over, our office was nominated for two national awards…including most improved agency in the country.
Guard Your Reputation
As a lawyer, reputation is everything. I think that’s true for all professions I have encountered.
So, I advise people to build the very best reputation they possibly can. That doesn’t mean be what others want you to be, or what you think others want. You can’t be all things to all people.
Show people and colleagues that you are:
Humble and kind.
You work hard.
Be an example of fairness, integrity, and civility.
Be an example of that every day, in all you do.
That will safeguard your reputation.
With education, hard work, a reputation built on solid values, you are poised to excel in so many ways. And when you excel, opportunities will come your way.
Don’t Be Afraid to Take a Risk.
While doing my best and having developed a good statewide reputation as Summit County Prosecutor, I was approached by Bob Taft, Secretary of State, who was running for governor. He asked me to be his running mate. I never expected or planned to do any such thing. I loved being the county prosecutor. But just as in every transition in my life, I was excited to try something new. To find out what’s around the corner.
I said yes, and we were elected.
Here is the advice I’m trying to get across -- be ready to take advantage of what presents itself. Chances are it won’t be anything on your radar, but I may just turn out to be the perfect fit.
When a position needs to be filled -- whether in politics or private sector -- if you work, are standing out, are willing to take a risk, you will be surprised what will come your way.
But I must caution you about risk. If you cannot handle the risk, don’t take a risky path.
If you will be devastated – by loss in the political arena - do not run for office. If you are going to be devastated by loss in the courtroom, do not be a litigator. There are so many other options.
Follow your own dream. You do not have to take every good opportunity that comes along. You may not be ready, or it is not for you. Don’t do anything because others say you should, if it’s not right for you. But I can tell you that stepping just a bit outside my comfort zone led to some of the most valuable experiences of my life. So, know your own risk tolerance, but do not be afraid to stretch.
I have always wanted to see what’s around the next corner…I’m curious!
When I joined the Supreme Court in 2003, as the sixth woman to ever serve on the Court, I was proud to be part of the first female majority. And in 2011, I became the first woman Chief Justice in the 200 plus-year history of the Ohio Supreme Court.
Today, I am the longest-serving, statewide-elected woman in Ohio history.
You don’t plan for something like that. It just happens while you are working hard.
Dedicate yourself to others.
I’ve talked a lot about education and careers, but perhaps most importantly, my message to you today is to dedicate your lives in everything you do to the improvement of yourself and your environment and the people within it.
And encourage our young people – the next generation of leaders -- to give of themselves.
Career is important. Advancing in your profession, making money, so you can support yourself and your family is important. Education serves us well in these pursuits.
But they will mean nothing. If you do not use those talents to help the least fortunate among us. Incorporate service in your lives. As ProjectGrad helps so many, continue to show them how they can help others in ways large and small as their talents grow.
The particular form of service to which you will be called may not be what you expect. It doesn't matter. Just always remember that you are called to serve. All that has been given to you, all that has been sacrificed for you to rise, this is what you must pass along. We must all give with a grateful heart.
My Next Graduation
Standing before you tonight, I am facing another “graduation”; another transition point. The Ohio Constitution says I must do something new. In about 77 days – but who’s counting – my term as chief justice comes to an end.
I am proud of what has been accomplished in service to Ohioans and in improving our system of justice, during my time. I’ve traveled to Africa, Asia, and Europe to both teach and to see what justice looks like around the world. I’ve met interesting people and felt passionately about issues – foremost among them – fairness. There is always more to be done. But I will hand that off to my successor soon.
I’m excited to see where the road takes me next. No doubt, I will seek out new challenges. These next years will be filled with discovery, to be sure. I intend to take my own advice. I won’t put blinders on and charge headlong into a one and only dream.
But who knows, maybe I’ll revive that old dream and bum around Europe.
As for you, I wish you success through your hardships, and that you find the growth opportunity in them. I wish ProjectGRAD continued success for another 20 times 20 years of making graduations possible for the young people so these future leaders can achieve their wildest dreams.
Good night and God bless.