This story originally was published June 5. 2005 in the Sun Herald.
Sixty years after Clare Sekul Hornsby was admitted to the state bar, her self-proclaimed love affair with the practice of law isn’t about to cool down.
The high-energy Hornsby, known for her snazzy stockings and courtroom savvy, won’t even consider retirement from the profession that has fascinated and challenged her since her first day at Ole Miss law school in 1941.
“I love what I do and do what I love,” she says firmly.
Every weekday morning, Hornsby is in her Biloxi office, behind the same desk, in the same chair her parents bought to set her up in practice in 1945. She arrives characteristically early driving a Chrysler 300 with a vanity plate that reads “DVORCE,” a nod to her family law practice.
Hornsby’s first case involved an older woman who wanted a divorce from her abusive husband. “It was so sad,” said Hornsby remembering the meeting. “She waited until her children grew up. I guess she wanted to die in peace. It brought tears to my eyes.”
You don’t have to spend much time around Hornsby to see that her compassion is as strong as her passion for the law.
“I go to funerals sometimes and I’m the only one crying,” she half jokes.
Back when she was beginning to build her practice, Hornsby said, “I did a little bit of everything.” It wasn’t unusual for her to make house calls, and she sometimes got paid with a pound of pecans or some shrimp. She wrote wills bedside for hospitalized clients who thought it was bad luck to prepare their final document prematurely.
Such superstitions were as common as female lawyers were rare in the 1940s. But Hornsby’s parents, who came from Yugoslavia to Biloxi’s Point Cadet as youngsters, didn’t notice the male dominance. They were too busy raising their son and five daughters and running a grocery and seafood business.
“Nobody told them it was a man’s world and I didn’t know it either,” Hornsby said.
Her only brother, John Sekul, went to Loyola law school and eventually became a municipal judge. The Sekuls expected Clare, their youngest daughter, to become a lawyer as well.
At Ole Miss in the early years of World War II, Hornsby was the only woman in the third year of her law classes. She roomed for a year with another trailblazer, Evelyn Gandy, who would become Mississippi’s lieutenant governor. The two remain close friends.
“She’s a gracious, caring, intelligent woman,” Hornsby says of Gandy, who lives in Hattiesburg.
Gandy said Hornsby has “opened many doors for women in general and certainly for women lawyers” and calls her friend “one of our state’s most distinguished leaders.”
Outside of her practice, Hornsby is involved in many civic and church activities, and has become known for two whimsical fashion practices started by her late husband, Warren. Even under her pantsuits she wears a pair of colorful decorated stockings from the 2,500 pairs bought over the years for her by Hornsby and her friends. And she wears a tiny mouse pin on the back of her left shoulder as an attention getter.
“Her personal style is so distinctive,” said Biloxi Realtor Milton Grishman, a fellow Lions Club member, who calls Sekul “an amazing lady and a great model for all of us. She’s a big advocate for the Coast and Biloxi, and she knows everybody in Biloxi.”
Hornsby’s humble office is a crowded timeline of her life and work. Framed photos show her in the 1938 Biloxi High Pep Squad and at many national law conventions where Hornsby dispensed canned shrimp and recipes “so they’d remember me.” Some of that Biloxi shrimp made Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter bend his rigorous rule of not accepting gifts. He wrote to Hornsby after meeting her in 1956: “In accepting your shrimps . . . I feel I am not really making an exception. Somehow I think of those shrimps as a symbol of all that the Sekul family represents --- its transmigration from Yugoslavia to the United States and its assimilation in the multiracial life of this nation and its contribution to it.”
Her faith is an important part of Hornsby’s life and career, which she considers “the highest of all callings next to the ministry.” She admits that if she can’t help clients, “I pray for them.” On her crowded desk is a well-used candle dedicated to the patron saint of impossible causes. “St. Jude,” she laughs,”has to work overtime on me.”