Retiring agency director offered her 'life lessons'

Some six years ago, Maura Corrigan appeared before a group of students at Pontiac Central High School, offering the teens some valuable "life lessons" that have served her well during a career in the law.

As a backdrop to her informal talk was a sign hanging from the classroom ceiling, bearing a message in brief and unequivocal terms:

"Stand for something or you will fall for anything."

It was a message that seemed to resonate with the students that day as they heard from the then state Supreme Court justice, who left the court in 2010 to become director of the Michigan Department of Human Services.

"Don't get discouraged when people tell you that you can't do it," Corrigan told the group of 15 students assembled for a weekly meeting held under the auspices of the Pontiac Alumni Foundation. "My father told me, as a woman, that I couldn't be a lawyer. That it wasn't in the cards. That made me want it even more. I was determined to reach my goal, no matter what anyone else said about it."

She did, of course, eventually ascending to the state's highest court in the 1998 election. Her illustrious career in public service will come to an end in late December when Corrigan retires from her state duties so that she can spend more time with her grandchildren.

A 1969 graduate of Marygrove College in Detroit, Corrigan earned her law degree from the University of Detroit Mercy. A former assistant prosecuting attorney in Wayne County, she served as chief assistant for the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan before earning an appointment to the Michigan Court of Appeals in 1992.

During her two terms on the Supreme Court, Corrigan was widely praised for her work in improving the lot of children in the state's foster care system. As chief justice in 2003, she started Michigan Adoption Day, annually held the Tuesday before Thanksgiving as a program designed to place foster children into permanent and loving homes.

The mother of two grown children, Corrigan said she is "shy" by nature and had to overcome a "fear of public speaking" as her career aspirations began to take hold.

"When I was being encouraged to run for state office, the Governor (John Engler) told me that, 'Life expands in proportion to your courage,'" Corrigan told the Pontiac students that day. "I was scared about putting myself out there for everyone to see, to analyze, to criticize, but what I found through all of my campaigning across the state is that most people are very nice and will give you a chance to prove yourself."

Corrigan has received state and national acclaim for her legal, humanitarian, and public service work over the course of her professional career. She holds honorary doctorates from more than a dozen colleges and universities, and at one time was on the "short list" for a coveted opening on the U.S. Supreme Court.

I first met Corrigan in November 2007 when she administered the oath of office to her son, Daniel Grano, a graduate of Wayne State Law School. I was there to document the occasion, a swearing in ceremony that ranked as one of the "happiest moments" of Corrigan's career.

Her son, a 2000 graduate of University of Detroit Jesuit High School, took a circuitous route to his law school studies at Wayne State. He began his undergraduate work at Wayne State, transferring to Eastern Michigan University as a second semester freshman. From there, he enrolled in the University of Michigan-Dearborn, eventually earning admission to his dream school, the U of M in Ann Arbor, for his final two years.

"It was always his goal to graduate from the University of Michigan and he showed a lot of perseverance to accomplish that goal," Corrigan told me following the ceremony. "His academic performance improved very dramatically from his time in high school."

Her son's focus during high school was on more pressing matters, she related. Her husband and Daniel's father, Wayne State law professor Joseph Grano, was in the throes of a life-and-death struggle with Multiple System Atrophy, a neurodegenerative disorder with no known cure. It would be a 13-year battle for Professor Grano, forcing him into early retirement in 1996 and claiming his life several years later.

"My husband was very ill when Daniel was in high school and the illness took a tremendous toll on everyone in the family," she said. "It was very difficult to see a very athletic, physically fit man reduced to a shell of himself. He was an avid runner and tennis player who was in the prime of his career in teaching law. It all came to such a tragic end."

When Corrigan leaves office in December, it figures to be a touching and tender time for her and a legion of admirers. As a former member of the judiciary, she has "seen it all" over the course of her career, noting that "lawyers represent the best and the worst" of society.

"People love to hate us," Corrigan told the audience assembled in the Detroit courtroom for her son's swearing-in ceremony seven years ago. "We love to hate ourselves. It's not a new thing. Remember Carl Sandburg's line: 'See how the hearse horse snickers, hauling a lawyer's bones.' Never lose sight of who you are and what you are. Don't ever lose sight of your role in this, our precious democracy and our system of justice."

Published: Wed, Nov 05, 2014


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