While Husband Seth Marks Her Absent, Shirley Hufstedler Attends to the Birth of D.o.e.

updated 04/28/1980 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/28/1980 01:00AM

Her professional problems are truly monumental. The country's first Secretary of Education, Shirley Hufstedler, has to prepare her department for its formal birth in Washington on May 4, organize some 17,000 employees and come up with a sensible way to spend $15.1 billion the first year—not to mention fitting in campaign appearances for her boss, President Carter.

There's another worry too, and, though touchingly personal, it is no less important: her separation from husband Seth, who has remained in Los Angeles to tend his law practice.

"It's a very serious hardship," Shirley, 54, says. "A close marriage is something one can never get over missing. It's the kind of arrangement in which if I feel like talking or I want to crab, we talk or crab together. Or we communicate silently, sitting side by side in our chairs, reading."

The more practical Seth, 57, points out that he and Shirley, a California judge for 18 years, have often traveled separately. "It really isn't any fun going home to an empty house," he says, "but then we both have many things we enjoy doing alone."

His wife's stay in Washington could turn out to be a long one. She makes no secret of her desire to be the first woman justice on the Supreme Court. Capital gossips have suggested that Hufstedler accepted the Education post last October in hopes of gaining influence with Carter in case there's a vacancy on the Court. Hufstedler allows that when she was offered Education, she asked a White House staff member if it would rule out possible selection for the Court. Of her present job she says teasingly, "I consider this an experience from which ultimately I shall graduate."

Her appointment to it was not unanimously praised, largely because Judge Hufstedler's only previous involvement in education came as a trustee of two California colleges. The American Federation of Teachers called her selection "rather curious." Even a White House official said in January that her staff was forming "incredibly slowly." Now, however, National Education Association President Willard McGuire calls her "an excellent choice." Hufstedler herself acknowledges the transition from bench "to total Washington exposure was rather abrupt. It was like trying on a bikini for the first time—in the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue."

She also has not been totally at ease with presidential campaigning. "I would be very uncomfortable about attempting a four-square, old-fashioned political speech," she says, "but it's different to speak to groups about the President's record on education because I believe every word I'm saying."

Since coming to Washington, Shirley has managed only infrequent trips home to see Seth and their son, Steven, 26, a medical student at the University of California at Irvine. The real cause of her homesickness, Seth suggests, might be the distance between 400 Maryland Ave., S.W., the department's new headquarters, and the San Gabriel Mountains near their home in Flintridge. The Hufstedlers' favorite hobby is mountain climbing—they've made five ascents in the Nepalese Himalayas, one to 18,000 feet.

She was born Shirley Mount. Her father was an itinerant building contractor, and before ending up at the University of New Mexico, Shirley switched schools more times than she can remember. "I never did subscribe to the general notion of what girls were supposed to do," she recalls. "I was a pretty girl, but beauty contests and cheerleading didn't interest me. I never liked any game in which I didn't think I had a reasonable possibility of coming in first."

Graduating from New Mexico at age 20, Shirley went to work to finance further education. "I was always going to have a career," she says. "The idea that I would grow up to be somebody's dependent didn't appeal to me." Employed briefly by actor Burgess Meredith and his wife, Paulette Goddard, Shirley found her duties included taking "their formidable parrot to the vet to get its toenails clipped."

Law appealed to her because she could get a degree in three years. At Stanford in 1946 she was one of six women in a class of 150 that included Seth, Warren M. Christopher, now Deputy Secretary of State, and Fred Dutton, a friend of the Kennedy family who has become a lobbyist for the Saudis.

Of his own background, Seth says, "I always felt like an only child with three mothers—my sisters were 10 and 11 years older." His folks ran a general store in Dewar, Okla. until the local coal mines shut down and business went bad; then they moved to Southern California. Seth earned a degree in international relations from USC and went into Navy intelligence, helping crack World War II Japanese codes.

At Stanford he was first in his class and an editor of the law review, as was Shirley. "We had no romantic interest until about three months before we graduated," he says. "I don't think there was ever a time one of us popped the question." He adds, "It was apparent we had a great deal in common."

The Hufstedlers honeymooned in 1949 at a cabin in the Sierras—while studying for the California bar exam. "We were a little casual about it," says Seth, but they both passed on the first try. They settled in Los Angeles, working together for 11 years at the firm where Seth is now senior partner. (It specializes in corporate litigation.) In 1961 Shirley left to serve on the Los Angeles County Court, then the California Court of Appeals before being appointed to the ninth circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in 1968.

Seth was special counsel for a California commission which recently investigated accusations of political favoritism against the state supreme court. (The commission eventually decided not to file charges.) He has no interest in a judicial appointment, though. "One judge in the family is enough," he says.

Both Hufstedlers have a penchant for long hours and Shirley now often misses her three-and-a-half-mile daily constitutional in Washington. Her exercise comes from 50 deep knee bends every morning and jumping in and out of beauty parlor chairs. She hadn't been to a hairdresser "10 times in the past 40 years," she says. "Now scarcely a day goes by that I don't have to be photographed. I got leaned on to look not so schoolmarmy."

Of her new job's more substantial concerns, she says, "We've got some terrible schools, some violent students, some dismal teachers and some very poor principals. But there are wonderful things going on in many schools." An immediate interest, she adds, is "pulling people back together. I want to see a multistructured community built around schools as focal points." (Using the elderly as teacher aides and providing health care in school buildings are two ideas she favors.)

Eventually, she says, "I want to sit in spacious reflection, with enough time to make some intellectual contribution to the country." If that should take place on the Supreme Court and make her and Seth perpetually commuting spouses, "He'll understand," she says. "There are many young professional couples now who are torn in different directions," Seth agrees. "It's a lot easier for us after 30 years."

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