Months after giving birth for the 10th time, Theresa A. Nolan sat in her New Carrollton home exhausted, recuperating from the hysterectomy her doctor had told her she had to have.
Nolan didn’t have much time to rest. She was working full time as a secretary for an Upper Marlboro law firm. With 11 kids, including an adopted stepson, Nolan was stretched to her limit every day with cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, caring for her newborn and working at the firm.
Still, Nolan thought she’d make a good lawyer--if she could somehow get through college and law school. Around this time, she read a book arguing that people could be whatever they wanted, within their physical limitations. She read another book, “The Anatomy of Success,” which stressed the importance of cataloguing one’s own character assets and liabilities.
So Nolan wrote down her personal strengths and weaknesses and mulled them over. She decided the pros just barely outweighed the cons. At age 34, against the advice of many friends and relatives who said she wouldn’t make it, Nolan decided to go to college and then law school.
That was 1965.
She made it. Boy, did she make it.
Nolan, 69, retired this month after serving for 15 years as a judge in Prince George’s County. For the past three years, Nolan served on the Circuit Court; before that, she was a District Court judge. She was the second woman in the county to be appointed to the bench.
Along the way, Nolan also served as a court master, overseeing domestic cases, and on numerous volunteer committees sponsored by the county and state bar associations. She has also mentored a number of young lawyers, particularly women.
Nolan has become a near-mythic figure in the Upper Marlboro courthouse, where she’s known as the immaculately dressed judge who raised all those kids and who never gets impatient or frazzled.
“She’s a female Horatio Alger. She just has more guts and more perseverance than any woman I’ve ever known,” said Prince George’s County Circuit Court Judge James L. Lombardi, who has been friends with Nolan for nearly 40 years.
Cheryl Hepfer, a lawyer who has been friends with Nolan for some 20 years, said: “She’s just gracious and accommodating and warm and witty and smart and talented. She has a great inner strength and great focus. And she’s very hard working, though she makes it look easy. She does everything to the nines; she never does anything halfway.”
In a recent interview at her Bowie home, Nolan brushed aside suggestions that her career has been remarkable.
“The secret to life is to want something,” Nolan said. “You have to want it bad enough. Once you focus on what you want, all sorts of opportunities that you never thought about open up.”
In her case, “poverty was a great motivator,” Nolan said, only half-jokingly.
At the time she decided to go to college, Nolan was married to her first husband, Bernie Nolan, who worked for the Veterans Administration. The Nolans weren’t starving, but with so many children to feed and clothe, there wasn’t a lot of money left over.
The lawyers Nolan was working for, Oscar Dooley and future state senator Ed Conroy, helped and encouraged her as she attended night classes at Prince George’s Community College, the University of Baltimore and, finally, the University of Baltimore School of Law, where she earned her law degree in 1975.
Nolan graduated from law school a year ahead of schedule. She managed to sail through classes while raising her large brood by maximizing her strengths and being extremely well organized.
To earn tuition money, Nolan took depositions for lawyers on weekends and on nights she wasn’t in class. She took her law school notes in shorthand, recited them into a tape recorder, then played the cassettes while she was cooking, cleaning or doing the laundry.
Nolan would take six of her kids to the dentist on the same day, in shifts. She designated whichever child was 15 at the time as “head of the household” while she was away. She sorted laundry by gender and size on shelves in the garage and had her children pick out their school clothes there each morning.
Family photographs on display in the basement are also organized. Each child has his or her own section of individual and family photos. High school graduation pictures are lined up in the order of graduation, left to right.
Even as her family has grown, and her children have married and begun to have kids of their own, Nolan’s home remains the focal point for family gatherings on holidays and for other special events, such as graduations and weddings.
Nolan said her mother, the late Mary Hagan, infused her with a deep faith in God and church and a lasting belief that she could do anything she decided to do.
Nolan split from her first husband in 1974. She met her second husband, Walter Planet, in 1987, and they married the next year.
In retirement, Nolan said she will continue to preside over cases at the Upper Marlboro courthouse as needed and teach in the paralegal program at the University of Maryland University College and at Prince George’s Community College.
Nolan also plans to continue her daily 5:30 a.m. walks around her Bowie neighborhood with her good friend, District Court Judge Patrice Lewis.
“God did me a favor by giving me so many children,” Nolan said. “I had to reach. . . . I had no idea I could accomplish so much in a day.”