Women have been inspiring other women to achieve great things for countless generations. In honor of Women’s History Month, and the 50th anniversary of the NC Court of Appeals, a local woman is sharing her story of how she came to serve as a judge — inspired by the advice of her fifth-grade teacher.
“There was no strategic, linear path to my becoming an appellate judge,” explained Judge Valerie Zachary.
The oldest of five children, her mother was a school teacher and later a social worker, her father was a truck driver. Zachary said growing up her path seemed obvious, she would follow in her mother’s footsteps.
“As the oldest daughter, I became my mother’s ‘assistant’ with the housework and care of my younger siblings, which I enjoyed. I was also fond of baking, reading, painting and music. It never occurred to me that I would do anything other than attend college and become a schoolteacher, as my mother and her sisters had done,” Zachary said.
A teacher with a keen eye for students’ potential is who first inspired Zachary to consider a different career path.
“My fifth-grade teacher at Boonville Elementary School, Miss Annie Blackburn, saw things differently. Out of the blue, Miss Blackburn abruptly informed me that I was going to be an attorney one day,” Zachary said.
This seemed a far-fetched idea to Zachary at the time, but as Blackburn persisted with the suggestion, the idea began to take hold.
“Not having made the acquaintance of any attorneys at age 10, I made no commitments and took her opinion under advisement. My mother was not very encouraging; when she was getting her education, women just did not attend law school. Miss Blackburn, however, was relentless. By the end of the year, I was convinced that I would attend law school,” she said.
Not only did Zachary pursue a degree in law, she did so at one of the most well known law schools in the nation.
“Other women encouraged me as well, and I graduated from Michigan State University with honors in 1984 with a B.A. in Multidisciplinary Programs: Economics, French and Political Science. I then attended Harvard Law School, where I received my Juris Doctorate cum laude in 1987.”
Following graduation, Zachary joined the litigation team at Kennedy Covington Lobdell & Hickman (now K & L Gates) in Charlotte.
“I greatly enjoyed my time there, but I left to marry my husband, Representative Lee Zachary, and start a family in Yadkin County,” she explained.
Zachary was first encouraged to run for a judicial seat in the 1990s, but the timing wasn’t quite right.
“I was too busy with family life, volunteer activities and practicing law in Yadkin County to run a statewide race. In 2014, after the children were finished with college, my husband and friends convinced me to run for a seat on the Court of Appeals — and I lost,” she said.
Despite the loss, she didn’t give up on the possibility of serving the law in a new capacity.
“I chalked it up to an interesting experience and moved on,” she said. “But the next summer, the governor appointed me to the Court of Appeals, with the proviso that I run in 2016. This time I ran a full-fledged statewide race, and this time I won.”
The women in her own personal circle who have inspired her, as well as all women who continue to persist and pursue their goals are what Zachary said she is grateful for.
“I am constantly inspired by all of the working women in our country, especially single mothers, who display so many leadership characteristics every day. My mother was a master multi-tasker. Very resourceful and creative, she was also highly collaborative; she always wanted my opinion and gave it consideration. My mother also had the grit to learn from adverse circumstances yet remain optimistic. She, like so many working women, exhibited leadership in her own family. I thank her and all of the women for being positive role models,” Zachary said.
Kitsey Burns Harrison may be reached at 336-679-2341 or on Twitter and Instagram @RippleReporterK.