July 29, 2009
From Sheep Rancher to Lawyer: Joyce Benjamin ’74 Took a Non-Traditional Approach to Law School
This is the fifth in a series of stories profiling Oregon Law alumni whose class reunions occur this fall.
She had to purchase a home on Potter Street just to be closer to campus.
“I was forty-one with three children, a husband, and now multiple homes to manage,” recalls Class of 1974 graduate Joyce Benjamin. “I was exhausted and walking up the stairs at the law school and a professor who was coming downstairs said to me, ‘Isn’t law school great? It was the best time of my life.’
All I could think was, ‘Yeah, right.'”
Although she had her fair share of potential setbacks while in law school, Joyce seems to relish the entire experience and recalls even the most difficult times with a joyful nostalgia in her voice.
“During law school, I ended up having three major surgeries. I had hardly been sick a day in my life,” she says. “Two of the surgeries were on my retinas, so some of my classmates came to the hospital to read assignments to me. I never understood how I passed Tax that year ’“ I guess my memory was better than I thought.”
For Joyce, the decision to attend law school wasn’t something she always had set in her mind. She became interested in archaeology and history while attending the University of Chicago in 1947 at age sixteen as part of an early admissions program available at the time.
“It was interesting,” she notes of attending college at such a young age. “There were those of us who were younger attending as part of the early admissions program, but there were also much older war veterans. Being the wise child I was, I never let my mother know I was seeing some of these men.”
Despite being surrounded by older gentlemen, Joyce eventually married another early admissions student, Jonathan Benjamin. She was twenty and he was twenty-one. They came into some money and decided to make their way to Europe after graduation. Joyce and Jonathan spent six months in Europe between 1951 and 1952.
“We knew the opportunity for just the two of us to go was only open for a limited time.”
After returning from Europe later that year, Joyce and Jonathan ventured west. Initially looking for a home on the California coast, the two crossed the border into Oregon and fell in love with the landscape and the people. Joyce knew she eventually wanted to go to graduate school, so living near Eugene with the University of Oregon close by was the logical choice.
“We bought a sheep ranch about twenty miles outside of Eugene, north of Fern Ridge,” Joyce explains. “It was a working ranch ’“ we did all of the work and even made a little bit of money each year. It was a great place to raise kids.”
After nearly twenty years of sheep ranching and now with children, Joyce’s original plans of studying archeology in graduate school didn’t seem plausible.
“I was passionate about serving on the county school board and doing lots of community work over the years, so law seemed like the next best choice.”
So in 1971, the woman who was among the youngest in her undergraduate class was now the oldest in her law school class.
“I was surprised at how wonderful all of my classmates were. Matt Chapman was the youngest in our class at twenty and I was the oldest, so we got to be good buddies.”
Classmates even were fond and welcoming of her children; perhaps because they were so willing to work.
“During my second and third years of law school, I used to take my youngest with me to the school some evenings,” Joyce recalls. “The other students and I would give her a stack of coins and she would photocopy pages of text for us ’“ she loved it. I’m surprised we never were cited for any child labor violations.”
Following law school graduation, Joyce worked in Eugene for several years with what is now Harrang, Long, Gary, Rudnick P.C. She eventually started the Benjamin, Waggoner, Chapman and Farleigh law firm in Portland with her good friend Matt Chapman, and fellow classmates James Waggoner and Scott Farleigh. Joyce also managed to continue her work in education, becoming a member of the Oregon State Board of Education in 1976.
Once her two daughters started attending east coast universities, however; Joyce decided to search for a job in Washington, D.C. She was offered a position at the Academy for State and Local Government, running a legal center that helped state and local attorneys prepare to argue in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Even while working in D.C. for several years, Joyce continued her work on the Oregon State Board, flying back to the west coast once a month for meetings. She completed her second term on the board in June 1984. Her passion for education was obvious and when her friend Norma Paulus was named Oregon State Superintendent, Joyce was the first person asked to serve as associate superintendent. Joyce accepted and returned to Oregon in January 1991 to handle federal education policy and State Board relations.
“I loved my work on educational issues,” she remarks. “It’s been an odd career, but very satisfying.”
Joyce retired in 2006 after marrying UO Professor of Physics Russ Donnelly. She is proud to boast that she now has six grandchildren and that her oldest son, Andy, and youngest daughter, Elizabeth, are both attorneys, while daughter Emelia is a cardiologist. Even in retirement Joyce remains active in the Eugene community, especially in her work with the Network Charter School and as a member of the advisory board for the UO Museum of Natural and Cultural History. The acclaimed “Mother of her Class,” which she says no one ever has called her to her face, is even hosting a brunch at her home for her fellow classmates returning to Eugene in September for their 35th Law School Reunion.
“I’m so excited to see everyone this fall,” she notes. “I so enjoyed that class. Many are very good friends.”