Leader Blues

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

TOP STORY > > Daisy Olson: A woman lawyer who led the way

By NANCY DOKTER
Leader Staff writer

For women of Daisy Olson’s generation, professional opportunities were limited.
Born during the Depression and out of high school a few years after the end of World War II, Olson had but a few career paths readily open to her – nurse, secretary or school teacher, all worthy callings.
But this bright young woman, who would become Jacksonville’s first (and only) female city attorney, had a sense of adventure and an independent spirit that took her life on a less conventional course.
Olson ran twice before earning enough votes to win the position. The first time, she lost by nine votes. When the election winner abandoned the city post within the first year, Olson ran again and won. That was 1961.
She kept the job for five years, but with a salary of $100 a month, it lost its appeal as her law practice grew.
Except for a brief time early on, Olson practiced solo for her entire career, which spanned 44 years and focused on family law. She retired in 2000.
Olson grew up in the Delta town of Tichnor (Arkansas County). Her father was a first-generation immigrant from Norway, a carpenter by trade. Her mother was a teacher. A loving, strong extended family and solid values imbued her with the confidence to succeed.
“My parents taught me to be independent. Maybe that was not their message or intention – but here I am,” Olson reflected in an interview recently.
After earning a two-year degree in pre-law studies from State Teachers College (now University of Central Arkansas) in Conway, Olson took a secretarial job in Little Rock. It occurred to her one day that she would like to go to law school.
“It seemed exciting. I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll go to law school,’” Olson recounted.
So, she did.
She kept her day job while taking night classes at the then private Arkansas Law School in Little Rock. Although she was not the sole female student, she was the only woman in the class of 1956.
So, with gender bias surely rampant, how was it being one of the few female students?
“Fun, with all those men!” she cracked. “I haven’t had it that good since.”
Professional opportunities for female law school graduates, however, were still fewer than for males. Olson found that out when she gave the FBI a call to inquire about applying to be an agent.
“I was told, ‘No, we don’t take women,’” Olson recollected.
After graduation, she worked as a legal secretary while studying for the bar exam, which she passed later that year. Now licensed, she began to practice law with a Texarkana firm.
It was not long before a fellow alumnus lured her away with the prospect of opening a law office together in Jacksonville, which at the time had only one lawyer and one judge.
The judge would become a thorn in Olson’s side, and the colleague who drew her to Jacksonville would prove to be undependable, dividing his time between that office and one elsewhere.
“He would only come a couple of hours a week and left me out here by myself. In one year, he left,” Olson said.
Olson decided to stay put and go it alone. She built a successful practice, making her name known through civic engagement and stubbornly hewing to the sage words of a former Texarkana senior partner: “Don’t ever refuse a case, and don’t ask for help. Do the research and do it on your own.”
“Win, lose or draw, you stand there and do it,” she said.
Divorces, custody disputes, adoptions and the like became her specialty. Although not highly lucrative, family law proved to be gratifying personally.
“People direct you in a certain way by virtue of calling on you to do certain things they wouldn’t call on a man to do,” Olson said. “I loved the clients; they got to me in a special way.”
Soon after establishing her practice, Olson made the bold decision to run for city attorney. She lost by the narrowest of margins, but got a second chance, when her opponent left the post within a year. A special election was held, and she ran again. The judge who presided over the Jacksonville court tried to stand in her way. The word around town was that he recruited her opponent, a man from North Little Rock. That maneuver did not sit well with Jacksonville residents, who by that time knew of Olson’s competency in the courtroom.
“I think that turned people against him and his candidate, an outsider,” Olson observed. “I was probably helped rather than hurt by his activities.”
After her victory, the judge continued to challenge Olson at every opportunity, especially in the courtroom.
“It was a constant battle,” she recollected. “I won cases that he couldn’t rule against, but others he wouldn’t let me win.
“That will sound like sour grapes, but it is the truth,” Olson said. “But, it was the only place I ever felt any discrimination – never in any other court. And there were only male judges for the first 20 or 30 years I practiced. Judges judge what you have to say, primarily.”
Olson’s busy practice left little time for considerations of marriage and family. With that choice came unique blessings.
“I missed out so much, but practicing law, I learned so much about life. I learned to respect the privacy of people maybe more than if I were a general member of society. I learned why people do things differently and choose different lifestyles. That made me not quite so judgmental. I loved the law – all of it. It challenged me all of the time.”