Not many middle-aged people would enroll in law school at the same time their children are going off to college, but for Mary Roth Burns, it just seemed right. The many twists and turns in her life reflect a trust in her own abilities and the concept of not settling for the status quo.
“Since I was a little girl, I wanted to be a lawyer,” she explains. “I remember in grade school we had career day, and we girls were separated from the boys. We were presented with three options: nurse, teacher or secretary. The boys got all the fun stuff.”
As a youth, Mary developed an interest in art and received an undergraduate degree from UW-Madison in art education. Then it was off to Melbourne, Australia, to teach. While there, she met and married Peter and their first child, Sarah, was born.
The family moved back to the States where Peter attended medical school and they welcomed a second daughter, Holly. In 1990, they moved from Seattle, Wash., to Rhinelander.
There being no openings for an art teacher in Rhinelander at the time, Mary worked as a reporter with the Daily News for a couple of years. Then she opened a café called The Coffee cArt, which combined her love of art with the coffee culture she had experienced in Seattle.
“That was great fun,” she remembers. “I had a lot of friends helping out, and my kids got involved. It was a great place to be.”
For three years, the Coffee cArt kept her busy and “enriched life in every way but financially,” she says. After she sold the business and entered into substitute teaching and other jobs in the area, she knew it was time for a change.
“Both girls were attending school in Madison, and in 1998 I landed a job at the UW Medical School as section manager of cardiology,” she explains. “It was a good position, I liked the people I was working with, but it just wasn’t a great fit for me.”
The idea of going back to school appealed to her. “I did very well on my graduate exams,” she says. “And in 2002, I went to New York City to complete a master’s in art and women’s studies.”
Her daughter helped her move into her NYU student-housing apartment, and Mary recalls some confusion when people there thought that it was the younger woman moving in, not her.
“It was exciting living in New York,” she says, “but about the time I was finished, the economy was tanking. I thought, ‘Well, the girls have graduated, my parents are in good health and I did very well on all my exams. Maybe I can finally study law.’”
Mary had her own mother as a fine example. “My mom went to law school when she was in her thirties,” she says. “That was back in the 1960s, when it was still very unusual to have women in the field. My parents always told me I could do anything.”
Being accepted at Northern Illinois, Marquette and UW-Madison, Mary chose to go back to the city she loved. After New York, she says, Madison seemed wonderful.
“There were a few older people like me, but I was constantly being mistaken for anything but a law student,” she says. “The course of study was hard, but I was ready to focus. Unlike many of my classmates, I wasn’t concerned with partying.”
Upon graduation, Mary looked for work in family law, but ended up with a career as a public defender. She spent a year and half in Rice Lake and then took a job in Walworth County to be closer to her daughter in Chicago.
When a public defender post opened up in Rhinelander in 2011, she jumped at it. “I had kept my house here, which I love,” she says. “It’s great to be back.”
She enjoys the work, which keeps her busy 50 to 60 hours a week serving clients mostly in Forest County. “I work long days, and at least part of Saturdays and Sundays preparing. It’s gratifying to help people who need it,” she says. “I get along with all the district attorneys, and I really like the staff in our office. They’re great.”
Mary has become involved with a program called Wellness Court, which uses a team of professionals to aid tribal members with substance abuse issues. “We help with treatment for clients who are raising young children. We have quite a few success stories already in Vilas County, and we’re working to get the program into Forest County.”
Through the years, she has noticed similarities in the world of art and the law. “Both have a tremendous foundation holding them up,” she says. “Both have an elite few determining what’s right and what’s wrong. And I’ve found that a large percentage of both is just baloney.”
For now, things in Mary’s life seem good. Her girls are set: Sarah in Chicago, married with two children and a career as a bilingual speech therapist, and Holly working in downtown Manhattan for a high end sustainable furniture manufacturer.
Looking back, Mary notes how each change in her life was a step forward from an unsatisfying situation. “If I had gotten a full-time teaching job, I would probably still be doing that,” she says. “If the coffee shop had been solvent, I’d still be there. Each time things weren’t quite right, I saw I could do better.”
She does hope for things to slow down just a bit. “I would love to start painting again,” she says. “Maybe this summer I can get some weekend time for that.”
Sue Schneider is a freelance writer who lives in Rhinelander. Her articles also appear in Northwoods Commerce and Living on the Lake magazines.