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University of Missouri

Mary Nelson: A First of Many Kinds

Alumna credits success to Mizzou.

Mary Nelson

Mary Nelson, JD ’80, downplays her history of “firsts.” Photo by Nicholas Benner.

The first black woman appointed to Missouri’s administrative hearing commission credits much of her success to Mizzou. Her former classmates are judges, prominent lawyers and heads of corporations. “I’m connected to a network of influential people all over the country,” says Mary Nelson, JD ’80. “They take my phone calls because I’m a part of the Mizzou family.”

Nelson has achieved a slew of “first” designations, including the first African-American elected to partnership at Lashly and Baer law firm in St. Louis, and the first African-American to serve as general counsel to the Missouri Speaker of the House.

But she considers being first only an “accident of history,” not a major accomplishment. “I think there is so much in our society that has nothing to do with merit but just has everything to do with timing,” Nelson says. “I don’t think my being the first to do something means I was the first and only person qualified for the job; it might mean I was there when the door finally opened.”

Nelson traces the roots of her passion for law back to the civil rights movement. “Lawyers seemed to be at the forefront of everything,” she says.

She remembers seeing the historic March on Washington on television in 1963. As each speaker approached the stage, she watched them move a sea of thousands to tears. “That was nothing short of remarkable to me,” she says.

Nelson doesn’t claim to be more deserving of success than black attorneys who came before her. “When it’s your life, you don’t know why somebody else didn’t make it before you,” she says. “All you know is that you showed up, you worked hard and you got an opportunity.”