2010 Distinguished Alumni Award Honoree
That last one may not be necessary for everyone.
Married since 2002, Johnson and Oberly each boast a resume of achievements that places them in Washington’s elite circles. Johnson is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, author of more than a dozen books, and frequent commentator on PBS’s News Hour.
Oberly, a longtime litigator and former vice chair and general counsel of the accounting firm of Ernst and Young, is an associate judge on the District of Columbia Court of Appeals. Both will receive the Wisconsin Alumni Association’s highest honor, the Distinguished Alumni Award, in April.
But they might never have met had it not been for those friendly lawyers.
In 1997, Johnson was on a trans-Atlantic flight, returning to Washington after a speaking engagement in London, when the man sitting next to him, attorney Joe Howe, struck up a conversation with Johnson. Although he doesn’t typically enjoy such conversations, preferring instead to read while traveling, Johnson found himself drawn to Howe. After they landed, Howe invited Johnson to a dinner party that he and his wife, Mary Frances Pearson, were throwing.
Mary Frances then called Oberly, also a guest at that dinner. “She told me not to bring whomever I was planning to bring with me,” Oberly says. “But it was clear when I got there that all the other guests were married — she intended to get me together with Haynes, although I’d never met him and all she knew about him was that one conversation he’d had with Joe.”
The result of that dinner was a happy union, not just of two people, but of two influential Badgers.
A native of New York, Haynes Johnson seemed born to a career in letters. His father, investigative journalist Malcolm Johnson, penned a series of articles for the New York Sun titled Crime on the Waterfront, detailing corruption in New York City’s dockyards, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1949.
Haynes studied journalism at the University of Missouri before joining the army as an artillery officer in the Korean War. Afterward, he entered the UW on the advice of one of his former professors, Irv Wyllie PhD’49.
“I’d had two plans then,” Johnson says, “to go to Harvard or to go to Wisconsin. But Irv, who was a UW grad, said that Wisconsin was the place to study American history.”
Johnson focused his studies on twentieth-century America, particularly issues surrounding relations with the Soviet Union. After he graduated, he became a reporter, first in Wilmington, Delaware, and then in Washington, D.C., where he wrote for the Washington Star and later the Washington Post.
While at the Star, he covered the burgeoning Civil Rights movement, often traveling to Selma, Alabama.
“My parents came from the South,” he says, “so I had a pretty good feel for what Southerners thought and felt. No one could con me.”
The articles he wrote in Selma earned him the 1966 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting.
While Johnson’s work for the Star opened doors for him, his study of American history kept his interest on the larger picture — how the daily issues he was covering added up into the greater sweep of the nation’s development. What began as newspaper articles eventually turned into books. Johnson’s first, Dusk at the Mountain, covered the Civil Rights movement. His second, The Bay of Pigs, offered a definitive account of that failed invasion of Cuba.
“It was a fascinating story to tell,” he says. “I took a leave from the Star, moved to Miami, and interviewed the leading figures involved. And I developed a close friendship with Bobby Kennedy.”
In the years since, Johnson has authored or co-authored a series of books delving into national politics, including Lyndon, covering former president Lyndon Johnson; Sleepwalking through History, an examination of American culture during the 1980s; The Best of Times, covering America during the Clinton presidency; and The Battle for America 2008, a close study of the last presidential election.
“Whether doing journalism or writing history, the goal is to tell a story,” he says. “You’ve got to make it come alive. You’ve got to ask yourself — why do this? Who cares? If you can answer those questions, you’ll succeed.”
If Johnson was born to journalism, Kathryn Oberly was born to the law. Both of her parents were attorneys, as were her maternal grandparents, making Oberly a third-generation female lawyer.
Raised in the Chicago suburb of Park Ridge, Illinois, Oberly was a childhood acquaintance of Hillary Rodham Clinton, who attended the same church, though the two were not close then.
When Oberly was ten, her mother died of leukemia, an event that cast a long shadow on her education.
“[My mother] always wanted me to go to college at one of the ‘Seven Sisters,’” the then-all-women affiliates of the Ivy League schools, Oberly says. “She’d wanted to go to one, but hadn’t been able to because she’d skipped grades in high school and was considered too young. My father felt an obligation to his deceased wife, and so, when I graduated from high school, those were the only schools I considered.”
Oberly enrolled at Vassar and spent two years there, but didn’t care for it. In 1969, she transferred to the University of Wisconsin, her father’s alma mater. Encouraged to apply to law school before she finished her bachelor’s degree, Oberly made quick work of her education. She came under the influence of such professors as Nathan Feinsinger, the UW’s professor of labor law, and adjunct instructor Shirley Abrahamson JD’62, who taught tax law, and they broadened her mind about the vast variety of experience that the law could offer.
When she graduated, she found that she had no overwhelming drive to practice in any one legal area but rather had a wide-ranging interest. And that, she says, is what drove her toward appellate litigation.
“Appellate law is not only more intellectual,” she says, but, “in some ways, has a greater influence on people’s lives than trial litigation because of its precedential impact. You address all sorts of laws and statutes that impact every facet of people’s personal and business affairs. I like that combination of research and thinking about the pieces of the legal puzzle and how they will operate in practice.”
After earning her JD, Oberly spent a year clerking for Judge Donald Lay of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. Then she accepted a position as a litigator with the Department of Justice, where she became the youngest woman to argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court.
“It was really a dog of a case,” she says of that first Supreme Court experience. The case, called Kaiser Aetna v. United States, involved property rights in Hawaii, and few of her colleagues expected the federal government to win the case. “We called it Hawaii Nine-O, because we expected to lose it unanimously.”
The final result was not quite that bad. Oberly lost, but only six to three. Over the next seven years, she argued thirteen more cases at the Supreme Court, winning all of them.
In 1986, Oberly left the Department of Justice to go into private practice, first as an appellate litigator for the firm of Mayer, Brown & Platt, and then, in 1991, as general counsel for the accounting firm of Ernst and Young. While with Ernst and Young, she rose to the position of vice chair and a member of the firm’s Executive Board.
In January 2009, President George W. Bush appointed Oberly to a vacancy on the District of Columbia Court of Appeals, essentially the District’s equivalent of a state supreme court. Her first duty was to perform a swearing-in ceremony for her childhood acquaintance, Hillary Rodham Clinton, recently appointed U.S. Secretary of State.
“It was quite exciting, really,” she says. “When I found out Hillary wanted me to swear her in, I was just returning from a vacation in Antarctica, and I hadn’t yet been sworn in myself. I had to contact the chief judge and get him to swear me in just before all of Washington locked down for the president’s inauguration.”
During her first year on the bench, Oberly has continued to enjoy the full range of judicial work, not only presiding over cases, but also officiating at two weddings.
“It’s the variety that appeals to me,” she says. “My court’s docket covers just about every conceivable kind of case. The one common thread is that every case involves thinking on a high level about legal issues, knowing that the decisions you reach matter to real people. And every day in court is a good day for the judge.”