One has realized her dream of being mayor of her hometown and the other is leading in a legal field that has typically attracted more men than women. Neither likes the spotlight, preferring to share any recognition, but both are credited with carving new paths for women and mentoring the next generation.
Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson and Julia Spoor Gard, chair of the Barnes & Thornburg intellectual property department, were honored Thursday evening by Barnes & Thornburg at the fourth annual Shirley’s Legacy ceremony. The pair were applauded and toasted as women leaders who are carrying on the spirit of the firm’s first female partner, Shirley Shideler.
“With leaders like Julia and Mayor Freeman-Wilson showing us the way, I’m confident we’ll continue to make great strides until all women have the same opportunity that they worked so hard to give all of you here today,” Caitlin Byczko, intellectual property associate at Barnes, told the crowd of judges, attorneys, friends and family gathered at the event.
Freeman-Wilson, who is preparing to run for a third term as mayor of the city of Gary, has wanted to lead her community since she was in grade school. She earned a law degree from Harvard and served as Indiana Attorney General before being elected as mayor in 2011. Freeman-Wilson is the first female mayor of Gary and the first female African-American mayor in Indiana.
In accepting the award, Freeman-Wilson pointed out that Shideler knew her work had to include preparing those who come after. Indeed, the mayor was so honored to receive the award that she skipped the Women Mayors of America conference at the White House to attend the ceremony.
“The thing that I admire about (Shideler) the most is that she understood even though she may have been the first, that if she was the last, she had not done anything,” Freeman-Wilson said. “… Unless there are generations of women mayors both in Indiana and in the city of Gary who come after me, then I have not done my job.”
Gard earned her law degree at Valparaiso Law School and joined Barnes as an associate in 1997. In addition to leading the IP practice group and being described as the “go-to attorney on trademarks,” she has been a champion for working mothers, helping them navigate the demands of home and a successful legal career.
James Sweeney, her colleague and just-confirmed judge to the Southern Indiana District Court, called Gard a mentor and leader of the highest order. He said she prioritizes the needs of others above her own, makes time for anyone who knocks on her door and treats everyone with dignity and respect all while maintaining a good sense of humor.
As an associate, Gard knew Shideler but, she said, at that time she did not appreciate how special Shideler was and how much she had accomplished.
“Shirley never made a big deal out it,” Gard said of Shideler’s trailblazing career. “She never acted as if this was unusual or difficult and because of that, I really fell like she made it seem like something you could do if you’re willing to work hard enough.”
Shideler started at Barnes & Thornburg as a legal secretary. She attended law school at night and after she received her J.D., Barnes hired her as an associate in 1963, making her the first female associate attorney at any major Indiana law firm. Eight years later, she made history again when she was promoted to partner and became the first woman to be a partner at a major Indiana law firm.
Speaking afterward, Gard and Freeman-Wilson acknowledged women still have barriers, which is frustrating, especially since women have been in the workforce and making contributions for many years.
Gard emphasized that women have to be confident in their own self-worth and to keep working.
“If you run into a brick wall, you figure out how to go around it or under it or over it,” she said, “but you just keep going forward.”
Freeman-Wilson noted women today have more opportunities but they cannot take anything for granted.
“Our generation has it a little easier than (Shideler’s) generation and the next generation, even though they face obstacles and challenges, they have it even easier than we do,” Freeman-Wilson said. “So they have to understand, by fighting they’re making it easier for others just like Shirley made it easier for us.”