- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 26, 2005

DALLAS — The year President Kennedy was assassinated in her hometown, Harriet Miers became a student at conservative, comfortable Southern Methodist University, best known in the Southwest for its storybook campus, its pretty coeds and All-American halfbacks.

For the Catholic-raised daughter of a Dallas real estate salesman, the first year of college went smoothly. She scored high marks and blended easily with her competitive, mainly male peers of 1963 after years of overachieving at a public high school.

Then her father suffered a severe stroke, the effects of which would become the first major turning point in the life of the woman whose past has been described as “obscure” and whose nomination by President Bush to replace Sandra Day O’Connor on the U.S. Supreme Court has ignited a storm of controversy within the president’s most loyal constituency.

With the family business in collapse, 19-year-old Harriet Miers’ future was bleak. She had to decide whether to drop out of college and take a job to help the family or find a way to stay in school at a time when women were breaking into the male-dominated Texas professional world only with great difficulty.

It was a decision that friends and family say ultimately was made by Miss Miers’ mother, Sally, who was dismayed at the prospect of her youngest daughter dropping out of school.

“She very much was determined that her daughter was going to get an excellent education,” says Elizabeth Lang-Miers, Miss Miers’ sister-in-law and a Texas appeals court judge.

Sally Miers telephoned SMU officials and pleaded with them to make a special arrangement for her daughter, such as a scholarship, financial aid and a work-study job to keep her in school.

“The university said they could do it and have been immensely proud to have had her as a student and alum ever since,” Mrs. Lang-Miers says.

Miss Miers graduated from SMU and the university’s Dedman School of Law and became the first woman to head a prestigious Dallas law firm and the Dallas and Texas bar associations.

The fourth of five children, Harriet Ellen Miers was born on Aug. 10, 1945, in Dallas. Her mother and father, Harris W. Miers Sr., settled the family — older brothers Harris and Robert, younger brother Jeb and older sister Catherine — in the comfortable Preston Hollow neighborhood just north of downtown Dallas.

Childhood friends recall Preston Hollow as predominantly white with a peaceful religious diversity of middle-class Jews, Catholics and Protestants.

“Nobody ever locked their doors,” says Tom Dunning, a friend of Miss Miers and her brothers when they were growing up.

Miss Miers rode her bicycle a mile and a half from the family’s small ranch-style house to George B. Dealey Elementary School. Mr. Dunning, now a businessman and former Dallas mayoral candidate, recalled that for fun as teens, the youngsters would “go to a movie, or go bowling or to ‘Kips’ for a hamburger and a milkshake. After a football or basketball game, a church would have a sock hop. There was not a whole lot of drinking, and if there were fights, it was with fists.”

Miss Miers attended Hillcrest High School, where she was a star tennis player and more active in extracurricular activities than most and where she followed the rules. She was secretary of the Latin Club and National Honor Society in her senior year. Photographs in the 1963 Hillcrest High yearbook are accompanied by two or three lines about each student; next to Harriet Miers’ picture, there’s a long list citing her involvement in multiple clubs and the school newspaper, and her role as senior class treasurer. Classmates voted her “Best All Around in Sports,” although at the time, tennis was the only competitive sport for girls.

Curiously, despite her extracurricular commitments, former classmates recall little about her.

“She was someone who was involved in a lot of things, but never sort of the face of any particular group,” says Ron Natinsky, a Dallas City Council member who had a civics class with her.

“She was always sort of there but not very visible in a way,” he says. “She had a long list of clubs and organizations she belonged to, but it’s kind of like one of those people that you know are there, but are they really there?”

Hillcrest High was, in that era, for whites only.

“It was the way Dallas was,” says Mr. Natinsky. “It was like we were still living in the last of the era before we got caught up in the social change of the ‘60s.

“The long hair, the ‘60s, had just not quite gotten to Dallas at that point.”

The Kennedy assassination in November 1963 rocked the closed world of the young college students. Afterward, if “you told people you were from Dallas, Texas, you were almost a pariah,” Mr. Natinsky recalls.

After graduation, Miss Miers lived at home as a student at SMU. Her classmates remember that she was popular and made many friends. Unlike many of the women at SMU, she did not pledge a sorority.

She first wanted to be a teacher, earning an undergraduate degree in mathematics, but changed her mind and became one of the first women accepted for law school in 1967, one of 12 in the class of about 150. She quickly became one of the best students and was the only woman in her class chosen for the law review.

“There were 20 to 30 students who liked to go and have beer at the local hangout about five or six blocks from the campus,” says Gary R. Rice, a Dallas lawyer who was on the law review with her. “She was not in that group.”

The times were bubbling with change on campuses across America, but classmates can’t recall her politics or religion — subjects which would become important to her later.

“I remember her as sort of a mainstream person,” Mr. Rice says.

Alan Bromberg, who taught her at Dedman School of Law, supplies a simple reason why he remembers her.

“Brains. She was smart, she was responsive, she had good intelligent answers to the kind of difficult questions that professors love to ask.

“She was not one of the aggressive students who volunteer an answer anytime a question is posed, she was the kind of student who if specifically asked a question came up with a very sharp answer.”

Beverly Neblett Ballantine, a close friend who was a year ahead of Miss Miers in law school, recalls that the SMU campus, where good times were important, seemed removed from the civil rights and anti-war activism going on elsewhere, but that the Vietnam “draft was on everyone’s mind.”

Many male students were married, some to avoid the draft, and SMU did not tolerate the emerging drug culture or war protest. Two men were expelled from the law school for growing marijuana in their apartment.

Women competed for summer internships or jobs with particular difficulty.

“All of the guys that were with me on law review were getting top-notch, paying summer internships,” Mrs. Ballantine remembers. “I had one law firm tell me that they wouldn’t hire me because one of the older woman secretaries wouldn’t work for a woman.

“I’m assuming Harriet had the same problems.”

Miss Miers also had heavy family responsibilities, helping her mother and sick father. But friends say she was somehow unfazed by issues of discrimination or sex.

“Harriet was always the strongest, one of the most wonderful friends I’ve ever had,” Mrs. Ballantine says. “I am a lifelong Democrat, and I can still say that, she’s just a really steady person.”

Miss Miers’ “steadiness” might explain why friends recall so little about her political beliefs and critics call her past “obscure.”

This was what attracted the attention of the conservative male-dominated law firms of Dallas. Because none of the Dallas firms were hiring women out of law school, Miss Miers took a clerkship for two years under U.S. District Judge Joe E. Estes. He became a mentor and in 1972 guided her to Locke, Purnell, Boren, Laney & Neely, one of the city’s most prominent law firms.

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