"I was a feminist since the day I was born," says Ann Mesle. "And the kind of feminism Iím pertaining to is civil rights."
Ann Mesle grew up in an era when society was much different than it is today. Just a little over 50 years ago, women had predestined roles while minorities were marginalized. But with the aid of a progressive spirit instilled by both her parents and encouragement from mentors in her community, Mesle saw things differently and subsequently defied the societal norms of her day by pursuing a career in law that spanned nearly four decades.
"The history of Independence is fascinating," recalls Mesle. "We actually have a strong African-American community."
Mesle reflects on her youth and recalls befriending a number of black children at a time when it was considered a taboo. The whole notion of basing judgment on oneís skin color always perplexed her.
"My family always championed civil rights," Ann says.
Throughout her youth, both her family and a local minister were involved in many civil rights causes that inevitably made a lasting impression on young Ann. Her father, Carl Mesle, was a longtime minister at Stone Church in Independence who always advocated equality in his community.
"I wasnít aggressive in a protesting sense, but I remember attending a peace march where a well-known minister at the time pulled out a chart showing the degrees of skin color to determine whether youíre black or white. He was hinting at the absurdity of judging a person solely on color and it definitely made an impact on me."
Mesle continued on about other lessons her father taught her and her siblings, most notably the virtue of commitment. "He (her father) was involved in virtually every civic and community organization," she says. From being the PTA president to a member of a McCoy Neighborhood Association, Annís father stressed the importance of being dedicated in whatever one pursues.
She also cites another quality learned from her mother that made her what she is today: Love. "My father was all about commitment while my mother was all about unconditional love." Mesle says these two traits were fundamental in her overall development.
Although expected to be a ministerís wife ("And you know what that entails," Ann smiled), Mesle points out that if it wasnít for the encouragement of former William Chrisman High School debate coach Margaret Meredith, her path in life would have turned out much differently. "I was good at debate and she supported me to use it later in life," she says. "You did not receive that kind of encouragement back in those days."
Ann took her teacherís advice to heart and later graduated from University of Missouri-Kansas City Law School in 1972. As for finding a job, it wasnít a question of "where," but more a matter of "if."
"There are barriers," said Mesle regarding advice for women wanting to pursue a career in law. "Get over it. Iím not trying to sound unsympathetic, but thatís just the way it is. Self-esteem is crucial. You need the ability to work through challenges."
Mesle explained that no woman in law is ever going to find it easy. "Oh it has improved since then - worlds apart - but the practice hasnít changed. I had occasions during a meeting where a woman is flat-out ignored after she speaks up or mentions something."
Ann landed her first legal job with the former Kansas City law firm, Actenberg, Sandler & Balkin P.C. What particularly attracted her to the firm was that it included lawyer Irving Achtenberg, who previously argued cases in the U.S. Supreme Court concerning civil rights.
"He was the premiere civil rights attorney in Kansas City," said Mesle.
After a four-year stint with the firm, she joined Southwestern Bellís litigation department. She says the company was unlike anything she came across during that time because it valued minorities in the professional workplace.
"When you have that kind of diversity in the workplace, youíre able to make opportunities open for others."
Mesle remained with Southwestern Bell for 17 years. Relocating to St. Louis and other parts of the country took a toll on her. She wanted to be close to her family. She was eventually pressured by friends and colleagues to join Lathrop & Gage, another Kansas City law firm.
However, throughout her time in litigation she discovered another calling that would still keep her inside the courtroom: Particularly on the bench rather than in front of it.
"Usually lawyers have a life of their own. There was a piece missing," she recalls.
Mesle explained at the base level a lawyer is simply one who is advocating position on a case. "The fundamental is to negotiate, but they donít have the legal authority to steer a case."
She remembers a specific case involving the University of Central Missouri where "the judge was not on their game" by shaping it to a certain outcome.
"I was thinking, ĎI can do this better,í" said Mesle. She also pointed that the grueling hours of reading through pleadings and case documents finally took its toll on her as well. It was simply a time for a transition, while remaining in the legal field.
In 2000, she was appointed as a circuit judge by Missouri Governor Roger Wilson.
"When you move to the bench, you are more involved on how to move things forward in a case."
Being judge, Mesle said, "felt like every day mattered."
"In order to become a judge, you have to ultimately believe in our system of justice," she explains. "It is a judgeís responsibility to remove the level of toxicity that is often found in cases."
Mesle says her two years as judge in juvenile court were the most rewarding. "Nothing felt as good as making a difference in the lives of children."
She says making decisions for kids who endured horrendous and tragic circumstances were most meaningful. "Everything we do (in juvenile court) shapes the lives of children down the road. We continue to protect future generations."
"I saw myself retiring at 70, but now at 67 and still being healthy, I needed more time to reshape my life," Mesle said.
This past summer, Ann Mesle announced her retirement from the Circuit Court of Jackson County. Her last day as judge was July 31.
"I just decided to become more involved in education," she continued. Nowadays Ann is active in a number of civic and education organizations, a trait that parallels her father.
Asked why she decided not to become a teacher given her passion for education, "I donít like the grading or the paperwork," she laughs. She also noted that although she did not pursue a career in education, her brother is a philosophy professor at Graceland University, a sister is in financial aid at a local university, a sister-in-law teaches literature and a niece is studying literature at the University of California-Los Angeles.
"Education is huge. It drives society out of poverty and propels America forward." She is currently serving on the boards of Park University, Child Abuse Prevention Association and the Metropolitan Bar Foundation.
The law tradition continues in the Mesle family as her daughter, Meg McCollister, practices Environmental Law in California.
Her father is approaching his 100th birthday and is residing at a residential care facility, The Groves, in Independence. "He is in joyful spirits," she says of her father. And despite her not becoming a ministerís wife, she says heís "absolutely proud" of all his childrenís accomplishments. She spends a considerable amount of time helping out and visiting with her dad.
Judge Ann Mesle offered some wisdom for future lawyers and those with legal aspirations. "In order to practice law, you have to love it. Many just see it as easy by getting good grades. Some never want to practice for the real reasons. It can be very beneficial having a legal background, but you really need the desire to want to do it."