Supreme Devotion

updated 07/18/2005 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/18/2005 AT 01:00 AM EDT

As a clerk for Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, RonNell Andersen Jones had the opportunity to learn a lot—and not just about jurisprudence. She recalls the day last year when O'Connor, the first woman ever to serve on the nation's highest court, herded four female clerks into her Buick for a fly-fishing trip. "There we all were, up to our waists in a stream with the justice giving us pointers: 'Cast over in that spot' or 'They're biting over here,'" says Jones. "As with everything in her life, she works hard and she plays hard."

On July 1, when her letter of resignation arrived at the White House, Sandra Day O'Connor, 75, let it be known that the balance would be shifting. One reason: John O'Connor, her husband of 52 years, has Alzheimer's. "John is doing remarkably well, tries to stay with it and is good-spirited," says a close friend, former FBI director William Webster. "But he does have a memory problem. The O'Connors' personal time must be very much like Ronald and Nancy Reagan's."

During her 24-year term, O'Connor was a steady voice of conservative moderation and often the key swing vote on split decisions, including Bush v. Gore, the case that effectively decided the 2000 presidential election, and several that upheld the right to abortion. As a boss, she demanded top performance but was also famous for her office outings, like kayaking on the Patuxent River or camping in Virginia. Recalls former clerk Ivan Fong of one such adventure: "Justice O'Connor led [a hike] and when we got back, everyone else collapsed onto deck chairs. She walked in, clapped her hands and said, "Okay, time to cook dinner."

Born to Arizona cattle ranchers in 1930, O'Connor was raised until she was 7 in an adobe house with no running water. An only child until age 8, she kept a pet bobcat, rode horses and read voraciously. "It didn't matter if you were a man or woman," says her sister Ann Day, a former Arizona state senator. "You did the job."

But it did matter when O'Connor graduated from Stanford Law School, where she briefly dated classmate (and future Chief Justice) William Rehnquist before marrying another fellow student, John Jay O'Connor III, in 1952. Only one California firm offered her a job—as a legal secretary. Instead, O'Connor opened her own law office in Phoenix, took five years off to be a full-time mother to her three young children and then went on to serve as Arizona's assistant attorney general and as a state senator. In 1981 she made history when Ronald Reagan tapped her for the Supreme Court.

O'Connor barely broke her stride when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1988, enduring a mastectomy and chemotherapy. Now, in retirement, O'Connor and her husband will divide their time between their home in Phoenix and a D.C. condo—and no doubt leave it to others to comment on her legacy. But this much she has allowed, according to author Lisa McElroy: "She said that it's less important that she was the first woman on the Supreme Court. What's more important is that she will not be the last."

Susan Schindehette; Melanie D.G. Kaplan in Washington; D.C.; Ron Arias in Los Angeles

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