With a raging debate going on about nominating Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court, the following is an article I wrote in 2005 about a Supreme Court justice with a genetic link to VT’s Northeast Kingdom – Sandra Day O’Connor. Thelma Wilcox, who is featured in this article, has since passed away.
Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s Link to Coventry
by Scott Wheeler
Thelma Wilcox, town clerk of Coventry between 1974 and 1994, will never forget the visitor who walked into her office one day.
“I was doing some work when somebody walked in,” she recalled on Friday, July 1, 2005. “I looked up and there was Sandra Day O’Connor. She didn’t introduce herself. I just knew who she was.”
The Supreme Court justice was visiting the area to research some of her family’s history in Coventry.
Wilcox, who is 87, said her contact with O’Connor remained very professional, with little chatting between them, but she said she was impressed with the graciousness of the judge.
When O’Connor announced on July 1, 2005 that she is retiring from the U.S. Supreme Court [she retired January 31, 2006], the news took some court watchers by surprise. In recent months there had been speculation that the 75-year-old judge was contemplating stepping down, but most people who follow the court thought ailing Chief Justice William H. Rehnquistwould retire first. O’Connor’s announcement served to increase the speculation about Rehnquist.
President George W. Bush has nominated John Roberts to replace O’Connor. Roberts’ appointment to the bench isn’t a done deal. Confirmation hearings scheduled for late August or early September are sure to spark lively debate.
Much has been written about the fact that Judge Rehnquist is a part-time resident of Greensboro (who has passed away since this article was written), but little has been written about O’Connor’s connection to the region. Her ancestral roots are in Coventry. Day Cemetery on Pine Hill Road in that community is named after her ancestors, and she has a number of distant relatives still living in the region.
In 2002 O’Connor and her brother H. Alan Day published a book called Lazy B about their lives growing up on the family ranch in Texas. In the book they mention their family’s connection to Vermont and how their grandfather H.C. Day risked everything by abandoning the stability of his boyhood community for the adventures and risks of the Wild West. The following is an excerpt from the book:
H.C. Day, our grandfather, was a New Englander—shrewd, conservative, careful with his money, intelligent, not afraid to tackle new ventures. He was named for Henry Clay, whose Whig politics were popular in New England before the Civil War. H.C. Day worked on the family farm in Coventry, Vermont, until 1865, when he turned twenty-one. Then, a free man, he opened a general merchandise store on the Canadian border, some ten miles north of Coventry. He made a nest egg and moved west to Wichita, Kansas, a central hub in the westward expansion. There he opened a building-supply business, furnishing materials for the rapid expansion of that city after Congress abruptly appropriated lands claimed by several Indian tribes. He acquired a cattle ranch outside of Wichita, as well as various other properties….
Sandra Day O’Connor was born in El Paso, Texas, on March 26, 1930, to Harry A. and Ada Mae (Wilkey) Day. President Ronald Reagan appointed her to the high court in 1981, making her the first woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.