John J. O'Connor III

John J. O'Connor III, 79; husband of Supreme Court justice

John J. O'Connor III with his wife, Sandra Day O'Connor, who in 1981 became the first woman to join the U.S. Supreme Court.
John J. O'Connor III with his wife, Sandra Day O'Connor, who in 1981 became the first woman to join the U.S. Supreme Court. (Associated Press)
By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 12, 2009

John J. O'Connor III, 79, an Arizona lawyer and civic leader who became active in Washington's social and charitable circles after his wife, Sandra Day O'Connor, became the first woman appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, died Nov. 11 in Phoenix. He had Alzheimer's disease.

Mr. O'Connor specialized in business and real estate law and commercial litigation. He represented leading companies in industries that included mining, manufacturing, real estate and financial services.

He was a partner at one of Phoenix's largest firms, Fennemore, Craig, von Ammon & Udall, before moving to Washington after his wife was confirmed to the high court in 1981. He continued to practice law with the firms Miller & Chevalier and Bryan Cave, from which he retired in 2003, all the while maintaining a low public profile.

He declined to talk about his unusual role as the man behind one of the country's most powerful women. "I've just decided to refrain from publicly commenting on the subject unless I want to spend the rest of my life being interviewed," he told the New York Times in 1981. "It's a significant office that my wife holds, and I think it is something different from other offices. In my judgment, it is not something I should get into."

His degenerative condition was diagnosed nearly two decades ago but worsened considerably by the early 2000s, reportedly prompting his wife's retirement from her lifetime appointment in 2006.

Sandra Day O'Connor spoke about the demands of caring for someone with Alzheimer's, including unexpected, sometimes bittersweet, developments as her husband began to lose his ability to recognize his family. He formed romantic attachments with other patients at an assisted-care center in Arizona, and this transformed him, the former justice said, from someone who had been depressed and introverted into a much happier person.

She told the New York Times: "He was in a cottage, and there was a woman who kind of attached herself to him. It was nice for him to have someone there who was sometimes holding his hand and to keep him company. And then he was moved to a different cottage, because his condition deteriorated. And in the new cottage, there's another woman who has been very sweet to him. And I'm totally glad."

John Jay O'Connor was born Jan. 10, 1930, in San Francisco. He was a 1951 graduate of Stanford University and a 1953 graduate of its law school. He met his future wife, Sandra Day, when they were editors on the Stanford Law Review.

"Beware of proofreading over a glass of beer," Mr. O'Connor was later quoted as saying. "It can result in unexpected alliances."

His arrival at the sprawling Day ranch in southeast Arizona to meet her family was ill-timed. Her father, Harry, was branding calves and castrating the young bulls and tested the fortitude of the young suitor by offering him "mountain oysters," freshly grilled testicles of a castrated bull that he served on a skewer.

"Here, John, try these," Harry Day said.

The young man gulped them down and managed to blurt out, "Very good, Mr. Day."

Mr. O'Connor and Sandra Day were married Dec. 20, 1952, at the Day family home, the Lazy B Ranch. She survives, along with three sons, Scott, Brian and Jay; and six grandchildren.

After law school, John O'Connor served two years in the Army Judge Advocate General's Corps in Europe before settling in Phoenix. He joined Fennemore Craig in 1957 and became a president of the Phoenix-Scottsdale United Way and the Phoenix Rotary Club. His wife became a member of the Arizona State Senate and later a judge on the Arizona Court of Appeals, the state's second-highest court.

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