BYC Spotlight – Catherine V. “Ginny” Kilgore

Catherine V. “Ginny” Kilgore, J.D. 1975

Who has had a tremendous impact on your career and how did this person help you?

My Mother, Lula Zora Tuma “Toni” Purnell, who was a sharecropper’s daughter in central Texas, amazingly went to college on a scholarship for a year during the Great Depression at the age of 15.  Although she did not have the opportunities that she made possible for her children she continued to educate herself and inspired all of her children to pursue their dreams through education and the work that they had a passion for. During my formative years, I witnessed her struggles as a widow in the 1960’s facing difficulties due to employment discrimination and many other barriers in society that impacted women during that time. She inspired me to go to college and then law school to fight for the rights of women and minorities.  I have done that for all of my professional life. She taught the children of our family to pay attention to what was happening around us, to form opinions and try to make a difference. She continued to have an inquiring mind, all of her life, and loved learning about new things. She passed on her passion for education to her children.

What unexpected turns has your career taken?

From 1969-1971 I had a great time as a teaching assistant and a graduate student in the English Department at the University of Mississippi. However, after receiving my Master’s Degree, I made a life-changing decision in 1973, to attend the University of Mississippi School of Law, even though I had been accepted into a Ph.D. program in English at the University of Texas. Law School was difficult and I wasn’t sure that this was the best choice for me. I think, however, as I look back over my career from the perspective I have at the age of 70, that this turn of events could be predicted given the expectation of my mother that her children would try to make a difference.

After being admitted to practice, I hung out my shingle as a sole practitioner in Oxford, in January, 1976 sharing an office with David Hill. In my early practice I partnered with David Hill, Ron Lewis and the attorneys with North Mississippi Rural Legal Services (NMRLS) on class action employment discrimination cases, prisoners’ rights cases and other cases involving civil rights issues.

I was not aware of opportunities in public interest law when I was in law school. However, after a short time in private practice, I joined North Mississippi Rural Legal Services (NMRLS) to continue the work that I had the greatest passion for. I was inspired by the work of the NMRLS attorneys. During those times, law firms, banks, courthouses, downtown businesses and factories had very limited employment opportunities for Black employees. Also, female employees were limited to traditional jobs. In factories, opportunities for advancement were not publicized and jobs were reserved to friends and family members. Public accommodations were segregated in some cases. The battle of desegregation and equalization of funding in K-12 school systems and in higher education was on-going.   NMRLS has been one of the most important sites of legal advocacy for Mississippians otherwise unable to access legal aid. It was established two years after the passing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, one year after the passing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and two years before the passing of the 1968 Fair Housing Act. I was inspired to join in that aspect of the practice of law.

The next unexpected event was in 1985 when the State of Mississippi created the liaison with the Legal Services programs in the state to provide the Legal Assistance component of Mississippi’s programs for the elderly. At that time, the Executive Director of NMRLS asked me to assist NMRLS in the development of an Elder Law Project. I founded and directed the NMRLS Elder Law Project and the annual Elder Law Conference during the dawn of elder law practice. The project provided free legal assistance to the frail and isolated older and at-risk population who otherwise would not have a voice.

Another unexpected turn occurred when Debbie Bell, who was the Director of the University of Mississippi School of Law Clinical Program hired me in 1995-1996 to be the Elder Law Clinic Professor, forging a partnership between the Law School and NMRLS. I have enjoyed teaching the clinic for most years since then.

Taking advantage of unexpected opportunities for changing my focus at NMRLS has allowed me to grow professionally.

What is one characteristic that you believe is important to be successful and why?

Success is a matter of opinion. Some people think success means making a lot of money. I think it was professor Cochran who said he went to law school with someone who worked at a job he hated and was going to retire at 50 and do what he wanted. The problem is that he dropped dead just before he retired. In my view, to quote Cesar Chavez, “When we are really honest with ourselves, we must admit that our lives are all that really belong to us. So, it is how we use our lives that determines what kind of persons we are.” Success, to me, is to be able to spend your life doing things that you think are important and that you enjoy, and to look back on your life and be proud of what you have done.

What are you doing to ensure that you continue to grow and develop in your career?

I am continuing to teach and study elder law, particularly as it relates to poor and frail elders facing legal barriers to access to the basics of life: food, clothing, shelter, health care; freedom from abuse, neglect and exploitation and the enjoyment of self-determination. I am continuing to participate in a coalition of stakeholders in Mississippi, that is part of a nation-wide movement working for modernization of the State’s guardianship and conservatorship statutes to afford increased protection of the rights of the elderly and disabled. I am also continuing to be a part of the Elder Law Clinic, a partnership between The University of Mississippi School of Law and North Mississippi Rural Legal Services. My efforts support my view that the only publicly funded law school in the poorest state in the nation should provide skills to students to provide access to justice to people who have limited income and to those who are at-risk due to being disabled, fragile and/or socially isolated.

Why is supporting the mission of the Bessie Young Council important to you?

The students, professors and staff at the University who encouraged me along the way were very important to my success. I think supporting this organized effort to encourage diversity, fresh perspectives and a varied student body is an important way for those of us who have received support in the past to give back. When I was a law student I was part of a support group that did not continue. I am happy to see a more permanent support group established.

What are your strongest memories of law school?

I thought the quality of teaching was excellent and I enjoyed the challenging work. My class started in the Summer of 1973 with (I believe) only eight women and very few African-American students. I wasn’t a native of Mississippi and I was the first person in my family to go to law school. There were many who didn’t really approve of our presence at the Law School. The tide began to turn with many more non-traditional students enrolling each year after my first year. I found a supportive group of men and women and conserved my energy to succeed academically by interacting very little with non-supportive people. I was also lucky to be married to Rance, who encouraged and supported me every step of the way by working long hours driving a tractor-trailer truck with no air conditioning delivering loads to Memphis. I will always have a special bond with my good friends from law school and the great professors and I still enjoy the support of the love of my life.