On a winter’s day when drawing in a breath feels like a thousand icicles piercing the lungs, Mary Lord ’51 swings open the door to the tidy house on Orchard Street and wryly asks, “Do you want to shoot some baskets?”
While a game of one-on-one with an octogenarian may seem absurd, there is nothing typical about Lord.
She swims three times a week at the YMCA and takes her energetic border collie, Max, for walks daily. Until August, she also worked from 9 to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday at her law practice in Middletown, a city known for its massive steel factory about 40 miles north of Cincinnati.
“I am semi-retired,” Lord says, correcting the common misunderstanding that she has finished out her career. “A lot of people figure I’m not practicing anymore. I’m 88 years old, and most of my clients are dead.”
When Lord decided to scale back her practice last fall, the Mid-Miami Valley Bar Association decided it was time to honor her 61 years of service and leadership as both a lawyer and community leader in Middletown. She was awarded the inaugural Honorable George H. Elliott Distinguished Community Service Award.
“Mary is an excellent lawyer, and she always had a big heart. She helped the downtrodden and people who really didn’t have a voice. She wasn’t afraid to stand up and be counted and say things in support of the little people,” said Arthur B. Casper, who grew up in Middletown and is a partner at the firm his father and uncle established in 1936, Casper & Casper LLC.
“Mary always stood up as a bastion of honesty and good faith. There’s not one person who has contributed more to the cultural and educational efforts in this community, but she’s humble about these things.”
In a house with three brothers, Lord knew little of the social and behavioral norms expected of girls growing up in the 1930s and ’40s. She was close to her mother, who was the cook, the cleaner, the sewer, and a member of the ladies’ group at church on Sundays. But Lord preferred to pal around with her father, enjoying their shared interest in athletics. A lean girl at 5 feet 7 inches, she excelled at sports. She was a proficient rebounder in basketball, a fearless short-stop in softball, an easy swing at golf, and had a strong, graceful stroke as a swimmer.
When it came to education, her parents treated her no differently than their boys. After graduating from Middletown High School in 1941, she went on to Otterbein College to study history and literature. Upon graduating in 1945, she accepted a job teaching sixth-graders in the small town of Lebanon, Ohio. She stayed there for three years.
“I hadn’t really prepared to be a teacher,” Lord explained. “I had to take a course down in Cincinnati to even be allowed to teach in the classroom, and they were going to require me to take some more classes.”
Instead, she decided to pursue a new interest.
She had worked in various legal offices around Middletown on a part-time basis during summers off from school. Lord would read cases, make notes, and talk with clients while they waited for appointments with their attorneys. She exhibited an astuteness that caused the men at these firms, including the Casper brothers, to encourage her to attain a legal education.
When Lord walked into a large auditorium on her first day at the Ohio State College of Law, she was one of five women in a class with about 200 men. “I wasn’t intimidated. I had three brothers and was used to guys. I liked working with men,” she said, “and the guys in our class were swell.”
More daunting was the pep talk students received that day. An administrator stood at the front of the room and told the eager group of students to look to their left and right. There was a good chance one of their neighbors would not be there on graduation day three years later.
“We could all come in and start, but they didn’t have room for about one-third of us,” she recalled. “They would flunk you out on a scale. We were assigned a number, and you had to look at this board frequently to see if you had been cut. It was scary.”
Lord began to feel more confident about her staying power after the first year. Professors, overwhelmed with the large classes, were unable to spend much time with students outside of their lectures. So Lord and the other students leaned on each other. Again, gender roles were a nonissue.
When the Class of 1951 graduated, Lord was one of three women to earn their Juris Doctor.
She returned to Middletown as the only practicing female attorney in the city. Her first clients often came from her mother’s church group – women who wanted wills and trusts. “I think I was at an advantage being a woman lawyer,” Lord said. “It was probably more comfortable for them to come and talk to me. That’s probably still true to an extent today.”
Her practice grew, and she hired male associates. They moved their office to the First National Bank building, where the town’s elite had their medical and accounting offices. She took her seat at the table with men at community breakfast gatherings, to the chagrin of some female secretaries who thought it too bold for a woman – even one who was a professional in her own right.
Lord also became involved in local politics. In 1963, she became the first woman elected to City Commission in a huge upset over an incumbent. With three seats up for grabs, Lord finished first with an impressive 7,508 votes. She carried 46 of the city’s 62 precincts.
“I appreciate the fact that I had widespread support, which means I can work for the good of the entire city,” Lord told The Middletown Journal on Election Day 1963.
She would work for the good of the entire city for the rest of her life, said longtime friend Fred Ross.
“Mary’s always been a leader in the community,” he said. “Mary’s very forthright, very frank. She is capable and reliable. She has always been a first-class person.”
While her office on Central Avenue closed in August, Lord continues to work out of the home her father and brothers built on Orchard Street. She heads downtown to meet with clients when needed.
“I’m still keeping my license, and I still have some cases going on into next year,” she said. “I didn’t want to be bored.”
Being the only woman lawyer in Middletown did not last long. Others joined the ranks in later decades. Lord doubts she mentored any of them, but she did try to encourage other women in the profession. She marvels at class composites today, which include the smiling faces of scores of young women.
Her advice to them: “Don’t be afraid of the judge. Don’t be afraid of the other lawyers. Know the law. Be true to your client.”
She sighed, smiled, and added, “Get a retainer!”
With her quick wit and youthful exuberance, one has to wonder if Lord will ever truly retire from the court, basketball or otherwise.Tags: Mary Lord