Noma Gurich sits in an office filled with Native American art, as is fitting for an office in the capital of a state once known as Indian Territory. Photos of family and friends are arrayed around her while her father’s trunk from his World War II field artillery fighting days fits perfectly into an open space under the desk. Also in this office in the Oklahoma Judicial Center, Gurich showcases her Indiana State University diploma and a framed piece of the Hulman Center floor where she once marched in her stocking feet. On a desk shelf sits a Larry Bird bobblehead doll, baseball card and a Christmas ornament next to a stuffed Sycamore Sam toy.
The items are only a fraction of the 2012 Distinguished Alumni Award winner’s Indiana State collection that gives homage to a place where Gurich’s life began a series of turns that led her to being named a justice on the Oklahoma Supreme Court in 2011.
“I always tell everybody that I’m the sum of everything I’ve ever been,” Gurich said. “I would never be where I am in my career if I had not done everything with all the people I’ve done it with. You just don’t do anything by yourself.”
The summer of 1970 proved to be the first turning point in Gurich’s life. “I think there are years in your life where you kind of go along, then something changes,” she said. “That was probably the first one in my life that I really remember.”
During the spring of Gurich’s junior year at Penn High School in Mishawaka, Ind., a teacher recognized her interest in government and history and recommended she apply for Indiana State’s Summer Honors program. She spent two weeks living in the Statesman Towers and studying political science.
“I loved being on a college campus, loved being with these kids who were not just from Indiana but Ohio, Kentucky and I’m not sure where all,” she said.
She left the campus in Terre Haute with information about academic scholarships and a dream of a different life than the one she previously saw before her. “My life was going to be: live at home, go to IU-South Bend and work,” she said. After securing an academic scholarship to ISU, she had another option: going away to school and living on a college campus. “I never dreamed I’d get to do that,” she said. “We were a family of modest means and that (living and studying on campus) wasn’t going to work.”
At ISU again living in Mills Hall, she plunged into playing clarinet and various saxophones for ISU’s marching, jazz and concert bands. She participated in student government and traveled with the Model United Nations Club. Robert Jerry II, ’74, met Gurich through political science classes and participated in the Model United Nations Club.
“She was a formidable debater on whatever policy issue was the question of the day; if you tangled with Noma, you knew you have to be very prepared with your facts,” the now-dean of University of Florida’s Levin College of Law said.
She studied Russian history with Donald Layton, now-emeritus history professor, which helped to foster a love that continues today for Gurich, who has traveled five times to the former Soviet Union and helped host a delegation from the Ukraine that visited Oklahoma.
“Most professors don’t enter the teaching profession with the idea of making a lot of money, but what we do hope for is something which transcends monetary gain,” Layton said. “That something is a special student whose intellectual curiosity, dedication to the pursuit of knowledge and commitment to critical thinking illuminates and defines our profession and our careers. For me, that student was Noma Gurich.”
By her second semester, the political science major worked as a student assistant for William Matthews, a political science professor and legal studies advisor who died in 1984.
“She was a big fan of Dr. Matthews, who taught a couple of constitutional law classes in styles very much like law school courses,” Jerry said. “I’ll confess that I would not take his classes because he graded on an impossible curve, and I did not want my likely grades in his classes to be on my transcript when I applied for law school. Noma was not afraid of the challenge, took it on and did really well.”
Gurich remembered Matthews as a “zany guy” who wore bright colored clothes and counseled students applying to law school.
“I had no idea what I would do with political science. I didn’t go into school planning for my job or career. I was just so happy to get to go to college – that in and of itself was a huge goal,” she said. But working with Matthews, cataloging law school information from across the nation and listening as Matthews counseled students, what Matthews urged Gurich to do began to seem more real and possible until it became fact. “He really thought I should go to law school. It became a given by my second or third year.”
Then it became her hunt for a law school.
A Westward Turn
Gurich looked east where many of her friends planned to move. She considered schools in Indiana and nearby states. Then she thought about traveling southwest to Oklahoma, where her mother grew up and family lived.
“The only state I knew anything about growing up besides Indiana was Oklahoma, which I didn’t really like because it was brown when we’d come to visit in December, no snow, no anything,” she said.
But once again she listened to Matthews. He told his students to look for a state where they wanted to live because once they graduate from law school they would know that state’s laws best and they would know people who would be influential – the future governors, legislators and congressmen.
Gurich’s family’s roots continued to pull her toward Oklahoma. Her grandfather moved from Indiana to Oklahoma in the early 1900s. Her mother moved back to Indiana. When Gurich mailed her application to the University of Oklahoma, she knew she would be moving to that state. Confirmation of acceptance didn’t arrive until after she the crossed the stage as a 1975 magna cum laude graduate and she shook hands with guest speaker Richard Lugar and honorary degree recipient Red Skelton.
“I used to tell people it was historical destiny,” Gurich said with a life about moving to Oklahoma.
Layton said Gurich’s accomplishments at Indiana State led to her being accepted into the University of Oklahoma Law School.
“At that time (1970s), it was very difficult for a student from one state to be admitted to a state-supported law school in a different state – and doubly difficult if that student was a woman,” he said.
In law school, Gurich felt prepared for her classes, especially the constitutional and criminal law classes, which she had taken as an undergraduate with Matthews.
He taught us exactly what they taught us in law school, only in an abbreviated way, not as in depth as in law school,” she said. “I think my preparation at Indiana State was remarkable.”
After graduating in 1978 from law school, she worked 10 years in private practice before being named a worker’s compensation judge in 1988. Ten years later, she was appointed to the Oklahoma County District Court bench, and after winning her first contested election, ran unopposed in three subsequent elections.
Through it all she kept her ISU shrine in her office and at her house. She can still sing “March on, march on you fighting Sycamores.” She tells Oklahomans of legendary basketball coach John Wooden breaking through the color barrier with his ISU players.
“Every chance I have I’m a cheerleader,” she said. “I’m not sure that anyone from Oklahoma gets to Indiana State, but it’s just the reputation.”
Gurich cheered for Indiana State as her alma mater defeated Oklahoma in 1979 on the way to the showdown between the two basketball greats of Larry Bird for ISU and Magic Johnson for Michigan State University.
“Indiana State was just where I needed to be,” she said. “All of us were first-generation college kids. Our parents had not gone to college, probably didn’t have the opportunity. ..You didn’t have to have a particular thing to go to Indiana State. You didn’t have to have a great car or great clothes. It was a very accepting place. We were accepted for what we did.”
The latest in Gurich’s life changing moments occurred in January 2011 when the governor of Oklahoma named her as an Oklahoma Supreme Court justice. Gurich is only the third woman to hold such a position in that state.
When a long-time sitting justice’s death left the court seat vacant, Gurich put her name forward as did 19 others. A committee then selected her as one of three for Gov. Brad Henry to consider placing in that position. The others were the sitting lieutenant governor who just lost her bid for governor to replace Henry, who could not run again due to term limits, and an appellate court judge.
On Jan. 7, 2011, Gurich awoke feeling despondent about the position, that she wouldn’t be the one chosen. She told her husband, “I’m not like them. I’m not important.” That afternoon, she attended another judge’s swearing in ceremony. “I thought I’ll go and hold my head up and I’m going to be OK. And I was.” During the reception, Henry sought out Gurich and told her to stay by the phone that afternoon. “Then I was a nervous wreck,” she recalled. Early in the evening, Henry called to say he had chosen her.
“I could not go wrong selecting any one of the nominees, but I could only choose one, and in the final analysis, I felt Noma Gurich had the best qualifications and experience to serve on the state’s highest court,” said Henry in a press release announcing his selection. “During her distinguished legal career, Judge Gurich has compiled an exemplary record of service on the bench and has consistently demonstrated the judicial temperament and intellect necessary to be an outstanding Supreme Court Justice.”
Gurich’s selection did not surprise Jerry.
“In our country, even though we have a vast federal government, we have chosen to leave the articulation and development of most of our laws to the states. The supreme courts in our 50 states are of vital importance to how our nation’s system of justice works – and obviously to how the legal system functions in each of the states,” Jerry said. “She is now one of those serving at this highest level, and that’s an extraordinary compliment to Justice Gurich and her abilities.”
The opportunity to make the right decision fuels Gurich’s enjoyment of being a judge.
“Judges serve not to please people but to follow the law,” she said. “But people a lot of times think that judges are representative, that we’re supposed to make our decisions as a mirror of what’s going on, to follow the loudest voice in society. That’s not our job at all.”
Instead judges uphold the Constitution of the United States as well as the state’s constitution. So Gurich listens to each side, each argument regardless of whether the topic is framed as controversial and counts it as an honor.
“The people at the bottom economically of our society have all the legal problems. They have more problems with injury because they work at crappy jobs. They have more criminal problems because they don’t have an education and they never had good role models and sometimes they don’t see any other way out. I’m not excusing anybody, but they often have the most family difficulties, divorces, guardianships and adoptions. — all those people who have had so many heartaches. I just always felt like it was a privilege to be there and be the one who sat and listened.
“Not all judges look at it that way. But the good ones do; the good ones care.”
In looking back at the turns that she navigated that led to her making life changing decisions for others, she sees a road that starts at Indiana State.
“I don’t know if I’d have gone to law school if I hadn’t met Mr. Matthews, if I had not gone to Indiana State where someone looked at me and said you ought to go to law school. People were not doing that (encouraging women). In my mind, I wouldn’t have. I really believe that.”
Jennifer Sicking, GR ’12, is the editor of Indiana State University Magazine and associate director of media relations.