Marie Kepper forged path for women in Pine Belt
By LICI BEVERIDGE
Jun. 18, 2017
SUMRALL, Miss. (AP) — The 1950s and '60s were a time when most women did not work outside the home — let alone inside a courtroom.
But the courtroom was Marie Kepper's workplace. She was a woman working as an equal among men without the benefit of a women's restroom or break room.
In 1954, Marie took and passed the Mississippi Bar Association exam just weeks after her 27th birthday.
At 40, she was elected Forrest County's first female Justice Court judge, a job she held for eight years.
Her exemplary career as a lawyer and judge has been an inspiration to other women in the legal profession here in the Pine Belt.
Marie, now 90, was admitted to the bar after apprenticing in her husband Karl's law office.
When her car broke down on her way to taking the bar exam, longtime Jackson Mayor Allen C. Thompson ended up giving her a ride. Her father had to bring her the $10 she needed to take the exam, but in the end she accomplished what she set out to do.
"The test took three days," she said.
A petite woman, she stood out alongside the 31 men who were sworn in with her in February 1954.
Dwight D. Eisenhower was president in 1954. Hugh L. White was governor. The first nuclear submarine, the USS Nautilus, was commissioned that year. The civil rights struggle was picking up speed following the U.S. Supreme Court's Brown vs. (the Topeka, Kansas) Board of Education ruling in 1954 that said segregated public schools were unconstitutional.
The Keppers, who married in 1948, worked side by side at their Hattiesburg law office after Marie was admitted to the bar. The couple had four children: Karl, Marie, Carla and Tony. The family lived in Hattiesburg.
Marie now lives with Tony at his home in Sumrall, where he is assistant chief of police.
Before the Keppers met, Karl Kepper was a B-17 tail gunner in World War II who flew 35 combat missions over Germany.
During the war, Marie was a volunteer cadet nurse at Hotel Dieu (later University Hospital) in New Orleans, helping to care of the wounded coming back from war.
The couple met when Karl needed a secretary for his law firm. As a secretary, Marie learned law by apprenticing under Karl, enabling her to pass the bar without going to law school.
Less than a year after passing the bar exam, Marie would run the first time for Beat 3 justice of the peace in Forrest County, losing in her first attempt. But that didn't stop her from trying again.
In 1967, when she had a little more experience under her belt, Marie ran again. This time she was victorious. She was re-elected to a second term in 1971, then returned to practicing law with her husband after she was defeated by Jack Thompson in 1975.
Karl practiced law for 48 years until his death in 1997. Marie is still listed as active on the Mississippi Bar Association's website despite retiring in 2005.
Even though she was the first female judge elected in Forrest County 50 years ago, Marie remembers her time in office as if it were yesterday.
She said as a justice she often got called out in the middle of the night to pronounce a death, which now is the job of the coroner.
"It was kinda heartbreaking," she said.
Marie and the court reporter Betty Sherwood had to stand guard for each other at the restroom door because there wasn't a facility for women. They also had to take their coffee breaks outside the courthouse because they weren't allowed to drink coffee in the lounge with the men.
When Marie was in court to hear her first case, someone said, "There's a girl in the courtroom." She was 40 at the time.
But Marie, who wore stilettos, got a little of her own justice by literally stomping on the toes of the men who got in her way.
"They weren't very nice to me," she said.
Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Dawn Beam said as a fellow attorney she looks up to Marie, remembering how she, former Lt. Gov. Evelyn Gandy and others, like Claire Hornsby and Mildred Norris, boldly went where other women had not been before.
Beam said the women encouraged her in her young career and set an example for her and other young, aspiring women.
"When I practiced law years ago, Marie Kepper was one of the older female lawyers," she said. "I can remember her and Evelyn Gandy walking the halls.
"(Marie) was a beautiful lady — always has been. She was a trailblazer."
And even though women in law are more common today than 50 or 60 years ago, Beam pointed out that she is the only female judge on the state Supreme Court.
"I don't think of it as much now as certainly they had to have thought about that years ago because it was just so unusual," she said. "Now in law schools, probably half the class is females."
Beam, who has been practicing law for nearly 30 years, said female attorneys were still a rarity early in her career.
"I think Miss Marie is one of the last left of that breed that were those trailblazers for females in the legal profession," she said. "We need to be reminded of folks like her that did lead the way for us. I owe a big debt of gratitude to her and to others for that."
When 10th District Chancery Judge Deborah Gambrell moved to Hattiesburg in 1974, Marie and former Municipal Court Judge Norris were the only female members of the judiciary.
"They were known for their work ethic and tenacity," Gambrell said.
Gambrell completed law school in 1978 and began a practice in Hattiesburg, where she tried cases against the Keppers.
"(Marie) was known for being an advocate for women and ensuring that they were well represented in court, even though she, herself, was in the minority in the local bar," she said.
In 1980, Gambrell ran for the justice position previously held by Marie, who also was the first attorney to serve as a Justice Court judge, as they are not required to have law degrees.
"I tried to follow in her footsteps," she said in an email. "I became the second legally trained (Justice Court judge). (Marie) set the trend for this benchmark as now three of our four Justice Court judges are attorneys and one of the four is female.
"She paved the way for me as a female elected official and for that I am grateful and so should our county be grateful."
On the judge's seat Marie was firm but fair.
Her son Tony Kepper once got a speeding ticket in his mother's district.
His mother fined him $40. He only had $20. Marie told her 15-year-old son he would not be able to drive his Mustang until the fine was paid, so he went to the police department to ask if he could do odd jobs to earn the remaining $20.
In addition to being one of the first female judges, Marie also was a pilot and enjoyed driving sports cars. She bought one of the very first Corvettes sold in Hattiesburg.
"She was the first in a lot of things," Tony said.
Marie said she is glad to see so many women getting into law these days.
"They're very good," she said. "Every day I'm impressed by some of the things they come up with."