Each night, Mary Gaston reads her three children a story, tucks them into bed and sits down with a law book. Sometimes when they awaken 10 hours later, she is still there. Same chair, same book.
Since she started taking night courses five years ago, Gaston has earned a bachelor’s degree, completed course work for a master’s in business administration and climbed to the top of Gonzaga University’s Law School class of 1997.
Last month, she and teammates Tom DeBoer and Carl Warring won the regional moot court competition at the University of Montana. They advanced to nationals in New York City on Jan. 27 when they will face the top law students from 14 regions.
Gaston speaks with a lisp. She almost fainted the first time she spoke in class. But at the Missoula competition, she argued so clearly and convincingly that she was named best orator. She spoke for 17 minutes without written notes, answering the court’s question.
One Gonzaga professor says that in 20 years of teaching, he has seen only one or two law students so quick.
Another associate professor, Stephen Sepinuck, says that for someone with so many outside demands, the diligence, attention and interest Gaston brings to her legal studies are “quite staggering.”
“I don’t think she sleeps.”
She often doesn’t. Gaston has five coffee makers and a caffeine addiction that has buzzed her through nearly three years of the most intense intellectual demands. All while volunteering every Thursday afternoon at her children’s school cooperative.
Gaston is a single mother, raising children 5, 6 and 7.
DeBoer remembers the fall day he learned his law school classmate had three preschoolers. “I thought, ‘She won’t be here long.”’
“Law school is sort of designed for 22-year-old single people who can devote their entire life to it,” DeBoer says. “Not only did she do it, she thrived on it.”
“If I ever stop to think how I do it, I couldn’t. I just do it,” says Gaston, 32. “It’s like getting up in the morning with my kids. I have to do it.”
It helps that she loves the law.
The middle child of an MIT-trained entrepreneur who develops air pollution control systems, Gaston grew up in New York and Miami. She moved to Spokane with her former husband when he returned here to work.
She was expecting her third child and working nights at JC Penney when she decided to finish the business degree she started at Florida State University at 17.
From the first case she read in a business law textbook, she had one goal: law school. She completed her degree at Eastern Washington University, scored 98 percent on her law school entrance exams, applied to Gongaza - and was rejected.
“I opened the envelope at the mailbox and my heart and stomach were in my feet.” Two quarters of F’s from missing classes as a Florida undergraduate had bumped her.
Gaston immediately enrolled in Eastern’s MBA program and reapplied to law school. Friends and family couldn’t understand why. But Gaston wrote Associate Dean Bill Clarke an impassioned letter, one of a dozen requests the associate dean of academic affairs receives annually.
She was accepted two weeks before classes began - just as she was preparing for a family reunion in Denmark. “I still have the $1,700 non-refundable ticket.”
From the start, Gaston has taken classes between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. so she can be home with Nicole, Blake and Brittany (nicknamed “Blue”). Her former husband, who lives 90 minutes away, takes the children every other weekend.
She never opens a book until the kids are in bed. “That’s my way of rationalizing doing this.” They go to bed early - 7 or 7:30 p.m. - then she studies until 2 a.m. Preparing her oral argument for moot court kept her pacing until dawn. She still is terrified of falling behind. “I never have three days to catch up.”
A patchwork of loans and family gifts supplements a full-tuition Thomas More Scholarship, which she and about 20 other Gonzaga students received for excellent grades and commitment to public service. But because she has no immediate family nearby, child care has at times hit $1,100 a month. She has no medical or dental insurance, although the children are covered. Last year, they attended three different schools, including half-days at kindergarten. “It was horrible, the worst.”
“When we got two of them in one school, we celebrated,” she says. “Now when I’m 10 minutes late, they have each other.”
Attending classes, working part-time at the U.S. Attorney’s Office and studying leaves her no personal time.
“I have no hobbies,” she admits. Movies? “Are you kidding?” She goes to Costco once a school term and otherwise shops only for milk, bread and produce.
“But I’m the most organized person in the world. I get more done in a car in 18 minutes than you can imagine.”
She also is a natural, finding the study of law as challenging as the practice of it.
“She’s exceptional,” says Associate Dean Clarke. “Besides being bright, she’s very articulate and very, very competitive in the good sense of the word, in an honorable way.”
Says classmate DeBoer: “she understands things so fast it’s amazing. Her mind just works that way. I think she’s the only one in our class who really, really understands all of the material.”
DeBoer, Warring and Gaston are taking Gonzaga to national moot court competition for the seventh straight time - a record equaled only by the University of Georgia. But the effort of preparing a mock appellate argument requires up to 50 hours of additional work a week. Gaston asked her mother Pauline Pedersen to come from Florida to help.
She also postponed spinal surgery. A car accident before she entered law school left her with neck and back injuries so severe she takes exams standing up and writes only on a laptop computer.
Next month’s competition won’t make or break her resume. She’s already landed a plum job clerking for U.S. District Court Judge Justin Quackenbush after graduation. But it will further challenge a woman who, when named best orator in Missoula, said “No way!”
Last week, her son, 6, wrote the meaning of Christmas: “Mary Gaston getting a break from law school.”
She slept, went ice skating and shopping with her children. After two days, she found herself working on a brief after the kids were asleep. Just don’t tell her moot court coaches, Sepinuck and Clarke.
“My mom thinks I need to learn to have fun,” she says. “I do have fun, although people don’t understand it. This is exciting, it’s challenging. This is fun.”
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