Taking a stand

Lessons Learned


A small, white cross stands upright in a ditch off a rural highway as a reminder to passers-by of someone’s life and death. That emblem is seen in many places, but this particular one represents Gary Conner, my brother-in-law, my baby sister’s first love. When their vehicle was struck by a drunk driver, he died instantly, but my sister, Monica, was left broken physically and emotionally.

Not long after, I sat in my home office on the phone in a three-way call with Senator (then Representative) Gerald Theunissen and the Asst. State Attorney General. I was told they were attempting to pass a bill in cases of vehicular homicide in order to lower the blood alcohol level for drivers in the state of Louisiana. On that very day, a draft of House Bill 812 was created.

Most of us are familiar with the books that end with “…for Dummies.” Back in 1994, I could have used one called “How to Pass a Bill for Dummies.” I was a simple high school English/Speech teacher after all. What had I gotten myself into? Thankfully, I knew about public speaking and writing. But this was going to be a different presentation from anything I’d ever done.

Within weeks, I spoke before the House of Representatives’ and Senate committees, with the aid of MADD advocates. Armed with a petition with 4,000 signatures, I had exactly two minutes to give a speech on behalf of my sister and her young children. I placed a recent photograph of my sister and Gary, and their girls on the table in clear sight of the committee members. I began my speech with these words: “What is wrong with this picture?” I went on for my exactly allotted two minutes, being as concise as I could, advocating on my sister’s behalf. When I finished my simple, passionate speech, there wasn’t a dry eye in that room. My sister sat silently, rarely looking up, her jaw wired shut as a result of the crash that stole her husband’s life. She shed no tears. She was numb to it all, I believe. My sister is barely five foot in stature and of a slight build. She taught me never “to judge a book by its cover.”

One year after Gary’s death, House Bill 812 was finally passed and signed into law. We call it the “Conner” Bill. We were invited to the signing ceremony: Monica, her oldest daughter and myself attended, along with MADD advocates. On the way home that day, she heaved a sigh as she stared out of the car window, and in a barely audible voice, said, “We finally won something.” I had no words, a novelty for me. I simply smiled to myself. And so, she taught me that it feels good to stand up for what you believe.

I helped to pass a bill into law: me, a simple, small-town woman. I am grateful to Mindy Hetzel, Peggy Mallett and Sen. Theunissen for their roles in making this bill a reality. I just knew that it was the right thing to do. I would tell the same thing to my students. I taught my own daughters to stand up for what they believe and have opinions of their own.

Monica suffered many injuries that tragic day in 1994 and came through it all, stronger on the other side! After all, she had three children who were depending on her. She had gone through so many surgeries and then the subsequent recovery, both psychological and physical. She never accepted the plastic surgeon’s offer, however, to remove the scar above her eye. I asked why she refused, and she told me that she kept the scar to remind her of how much she cherishes her life.

When I feel a pity party coming on, Monica reminds me in her not-so-subtle way, that things are not nearly as awful as they could be! But, then she smiles at me with a smile she reserves for a fortunate few, and I see that slight scar over her eye lift, and I remember one more thing she has taught me: never to take loved ones for granted. Lesson learned.

Short URL: https://www.jenningsdailynews.net/?p=26834

Posted by on May 21 2014. Filed under Editorial Columns. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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