Eileen Hansen: An Extraordinary Woman: An Extraordinary Life 7/10/14 07/10/14 12:07:23 AM
Printer Friendly Version
Attorney Eileen Hansen is spirited as she discusses her life and career at The Daily Record offices.
An Extraordinary Woman: An Extraordinary Life
By Lorraine Boyd
The Daily Record
The blonde hair may be turning silver, but the woman who sports those long tresses is as young as they come, in mind and spirit.
You may have seen her in the Douglas County Courthouse, smartly dressed and walking purposefully toward a courtroom where she will fight for someone’s right to be appointed a guardian who will serve them well.
Although many of her clients are undoubtedly younger than she, she is nowhere close to needing a guardian or conservator – nor, most likely, will she ever be.
Without admitting her age, Eileen Hansen gives us hints that she is fast approaching her tenth decade. But apparently that is just a chronological age. Her actions put her in her prime years of productivity.
She laughed as she told a recent story: “A gentleman at the courthouse was always asking to see my driver’s license (which is still valid). One day we were in the judge’s chambers and he said, ‘Eileen, how old are you?’ I replied, ‘Old enough to be your older sister.’”
What shaped this dynamo of a lawyer?
It’s a long story. First, the early years: She grew up on a farm in Hampton, Neb., with her father, mother and two brothers. They were of Swedish and Danish descent and attended the Danish Lutheran Church that was eventually moved to the Stuhr Museum in Grand Island.
After she graduated from high school, she had no money to further her education. “We were what my mother called ‘land poor.’ And my parents had three children and three hired hands to feed.”
Then, “by pure luck,” one Sunday afternoon a Grand Island Business College representative came to town to recruit students. He made her an offer she couldn’t refuse. A loan for tuition, and a job as a nanny that would gave her a place to live while in school.
Tuition was $350, she recalled, a lot of money in the early ’40s. The “old, established” school taught skills necessary for office jobs. She took them up on the offer. When she graduated, she took the Civil Service exam and headed off to Washington, D.C., to begin her career and to earn money to pay back the loan.
Working in D.C.“I worked for the [newly-created] Navy Department Bureau of Ships,” she said. “I was in a pool of young women who typed specifications for construction of items for shipboard use on military ships.” World War II was raging, so the work was important.
“Shortly after I arrived, they installed IBM electric typewriters with paper ribbons,” she remembered, making a face that indicated her distaste for the ribbons. She excelled, just as she had in school.
While at the Bureau of Ships, she worked for 14 men. She said a lot of them treated her like a daughter, but one of them cautioned her, “Don’t marry a Southerner, because you wouldn’t be docile enough!” She laughed at the memory.
She recalled the day her desk was “plastered with pieces of paper I was supposed to type for a speech my boss was giving.” He was a mathematical genius, she said, as well as a composer of liturgical music. “He wanted me to learn to play tennis so he could have an instant tennis partner. But I wanted no part of that; tennis was too fast a game for me.” He won many tournaments and at his parties he used his trophies as drinking goblets, she said.
Then in 1945, one of the Navy officers she worked for offered her a job at the National Bureau of Standards, where he was headed. He was a highly decorated, brilliant statistician, she said. “My ‘interview’ lasted five minutes; he took me around to see the facility. He showed me my roll top desk that, along with everything else, had probably been there since 1901 when they set up the Bureau. But as far as I was concerned, it was an ‘Ivory Palace.’
“People who went to work there were scientists with very distinguished backgrounds. The man I worked for was responsible for research in deuterium [material used in the atomic bomb].”
She started as a secretary, and eventually became an executive officer, working there for 16 years. “When I left they asked me what it would take for me to stay. I said there wasn’t any way. Every time they wanted to give me a promotion, it took at least three years to do a survey [first]. … And when I first got there, I said [to myself], ‘Dear God, never let me stay here long enough to look and act like some of these people!’” She laughed a hearty laugh at the memory.
The scientists were marvelous though, she said, “more like family than an institution. People won Nobel Prizes for their work.
“The division I worked in was the Heat Division. When I first came there they tested the thermometers for the Veterans Administration as well as for industry use.” They tested everything from aircraft fuels (hydrocarbon technology) to the octane of automobile fuels, for quality and reliability. It was a fantastic place to work.”
While she was working at the National Bureau of Standards, she agreed to take in a fellow worker as a roommate. Eileen encouraged her to apply for a Fulbright Scholarship, which she received to Oxford.
After her friend left, “I acquired a number of roommates, some with the tables turned,” she said. Like the roommate who was a Fulbright Scholar from the University of Paris, from whom Eileen learned French cooking.
The two stayed in touch after the roommate returned to France and in 1960, Eileen visited her there, as well as Denmark, Switzerland, Germany, England and Scotland. She also traveled to her mother’s native Sweden – spending a week with family there. Her French friend has visited her three times in Omaha and they have traveled to Branson and the Black Hills together.
Over the years she went to the White House for tea a few times, meeting both First Lady Bess Truman and First Lady Pat Nixon.
Ongoing EducationEileen said, “One of the elements of getting a promotion at the Bureau of Standards was continuing your education. I got an associate arts degree, a bachelor’s degree in public administration and government, and then obtained my law degree at the American University College of Law in 1962.
“That’s when I decided I would leave the Bureau. I also decided that I would do something different. I was offered a job at the Pentagon, in the Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Ballistic Missile Defense Research and Engineering, an agency of the Department of Defense. I never even applied for the position; I was just transferred. I was the only professional woman in the agency. I told them I’d worked with men all my life, so ‘what else was new?’”
Instrumental in that transfer was another very famous, influential and innovative scientist who has more than one prestigious award named in his honor. (She named names, but preferred not to make them public.)
She began her 10-year career at the Pentagon during the Kennedy administration.
“It was a very challenging job. Time meant nothing; holidays meant nothing; 16-hour days [were routine]. They also gave you assignments that were challenging, working with both the military and civilians. It involved military defense and included the Vietnam War, a terrible war.”
During that time, she worked with veterans and said the experiences “remained with you. My brother was in the Korean War. When he came back, he wouldn’t talk about it. He developed eating problems.” She knew firsthand that veterans needed her help.
While at the Pentagon, having passed the bar, she was admitted to the Supreme Court, when Warren Burger was Chief Justice, taking the oath before the full Court. Eileen said she had planned to go over to the Supreme Court by herself to be sworn in; her co-workers at the Pentagon thought differently, and trooped en masse to watch the administration of their colleague’s oath. That was some 45 years ago.
Another Caretaker RoleWhen Eileen left the Pentagon and returned to her home state after nearly 30 years in Washington, she said she realized she really didn’t know her parents. “It was time for a change.”
Her mother needed help so she traveled twice a week to the family farm to help her. Some time later, her father died and her mother was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, but stayed “functional until she was 95. She lived to be 97½.” Eileen’s brother, a Korean vet, became her mother’s principal caregiver. He was a natural, she said.
“He discovered a green mallard duck that had been shot and brought it home and splinted his leg. The duck healed, then stayed, so he bought three ducklings to keep him company.” The duck’s name? Donald. She smiled at the memory.
Law Career LaunchedEileen joined attorney Wilbur Smith to practice law in Omaha. “He was a marvelous mentor,” she said. She practiced with him until he died, and has kept practicing alone in the firm of Smith and Hansen, located just down the street from the Douglas County Courthouse.
She’s been there for four decades, her involvement with the Veterans Administration almost immediate because Smith had been involved in setting up guardianships for veterans. A sorority sister (Kappa Beta Pi, a legal sorority) who had earned her law degree during the Depression and served as an attorney aide to General Lewis B. Hershey in the White House, worked for the VA and became her mentor.
Eileen has had many colleagues in Omaha who inspired her. She worked often with retired Douglas County Judge Jane Prohoska and Margaret Fischer, who was among the first women lawyers in the Midwest. “Many of the judges were very, very special people,” she said.
Efforts Win PraiseDouglas County Court Judge Susan Bazis, co-chair of the Nebraska Supreme Court’s Commission on Guardianships and Conservatorships, praised Hansen’s efforts.
“She has expended an enormous amount of time, without much in the way of financial reward, to be available to anyone in need of a guardian or conservator, including much work for the Veterans Administration. She has searched high and low for guardians and conservators.
“If she can’t find a guardian, she often becomes one herself, for as long as necessary. She has certainly gone above and beyond anything we could have asked for. She left no stone unturned. Her efforts have been quite remarkable.”
Since Nebraska was the last state without a public guardian law, “I’m not sure what the courts would have done without her and a handful like her.” Nebraska’s new law that creates an Office of Public Guardian and an Advisory Council on Public Guardianship will take effect Jan. 1, 2015.
“And, although Nebraska will need to continue to rely on volunteers to assist the elderly and others in need of guardianship, the Office will serve as a means of last resort as guardian or conservator,” said Neb. Sen. Colby Coash, author of the bill.
Bazis also noted that Eileen is so “nice and cordial. She really cares for her charges, and they need someone who cares, because the decisions that have to be made are so personal. To know the person puts you in the best position to help. It’s not an easy job.
“It is hard to imagine the court without her in it. It will be sad to see her go.”
Backing up Bazis’s comment is the fact that Eileen traveled to Archie, Mo., about three months ago, where she visited its courthouse, historian, mortician, public library, as well as courthouses in neighboring towns, all in search of a single death certificate.
Debora Denny Brownyard, director, Dispute Resolution and Special Court Programs, State Court Administrator’s Office, said, “I know over the past three years, the Court has been very concerned with the guardianship issue. But Eileen has been one of those selfless individuals who has given of her time to those in need, in a caring and ethical manner. She deserves our thanks on behalf of the community.”
Fellow attorney Susan Koenig observed, “Eileen and I only had one trial together over the years, but we have passed one another countless times coming to and from the Douglas County Courthouse. Eileen inspires those of us who love our practice to know we can enjoy a career for many decades. She is always humble, but her tall presence conveys a quiet pride in her profession and confidence in her work.
“When someone on the phone asks me, ‘Are you the attorney who wears hats?’ I reply, “I’m the short one who wears hats,” Koenig said.
Is Eileen going to retire? “I’m not taking any new cases,” she insists. “I’m clearing up cases – cases that can drag on for generations – so I can retire. I have already planted, partially, my garden in the country.”
And with that, she donned her straw hat and strode out the door toward her car.