December 16, 2004

Deborah Mahon commuted daily from Effingham Mother of 3 pursues dream, earns law degree

by Pete Rosenbery

CARBONDALE, Ill. - - Deborah J. Mahon personifies commitment.

A mother of three, Mahon decided two-and-a-half years ago to leave her job in hospital administration to attend law school at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Juggling the responsibilities of caring for a family and meeting the rigorous demands of law school is no small feat.

There is, however, one more complicating factor in this equation: Mahon's 190-mile daily commute from the family's home in Effingham. "I've enjoyed every bit of it. It has been fun from the very beginning," said Mahon, who will receive her law degree during commencement exercises at 9:30 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 18, at the SIU Arena.

Involved in the health care field for 20 years, Mahon, 44, was the director of outpatient services at Sarah Bush Lincoln Health System in Charleston. That experience gave Mahon the opportunity to work with health care attorneys involved in risk management and state licensing issues. Several attorneys encouraged her to pursue her dream, and she did take the Law School Admissions Test "for the fun of it just to see what would happen."

Even though she passed the entrance exam, it took another year of "going back and forth" before Mahon decided to go to law school.

"I thought, I will be 43 and had done it, or 43 and wished I had done it," said Mahon, who graduated in1978 from Effingham St. Anthony High School. She earned a bachelor's degree in medical technology from Indiana State University in 1982, and a master's degree in business administration from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville in 1994.

"Law school was harder than I thought it was going to be. On the other hand, I really love it and wish I would have done it years ago," she said.

"You have to make a commitment to do it. It's definitely a commitment and your family does pay for it; you have to have a strong support system," she said.

Typically small matters, such as having someone home to let the cable television or washer repairman in, can be difficult without help, Mahon said.

"If you have a good support system that makes all the difference in the world," she said.

That family support - - and lots of minutes on cell phones - - played pivotal roles in Mahon pursuing law school. Her two sons attend SIUC and live on campus; Scott J. Mahon is a senior in the physician assistant program, and Steven Joseph Mahon is a sophomore in the same program. Her daughter, Stacia, is a junior at Effingham St. Anthony High School.

The thought of relocating was difficult, Mahon said. The family has a 10-acre home with horses and dogs, and her daughter was a high school freshman when Mahon decided to go to law school. Her mother, Margaret Niebrugge, lives in Effingham and helped quite a bit, Mahon said.

"I just really couldn't see any reason to sell all of this and make her (Stacia's) life be different. This is something I wanted to do," Mahon said.

Along with family support, Mahon definitely needed reliable transportation and monthly oil changes.

In about a year, Mahon has put nearly 100,000 miles on a vehicle she got to replace the SUV (with 200,000 miles) she gave to her daughter. And every month, or 5,000 miles, Mahon had the oil changed.

"The oil change guys thought it was pretty wild I did all that driving just to go to law school," she said. "They didn't have a very high opinion of lawyers. But after I spent all those months coming in there all the time, they finally figured out lawyers can be cool, too - - so they started in with the typical reaction, asking questions about rent, taxes, personal injury questions, etc., all the stuff people ask about when they find out you are a lawyer."

The drive meant occasional traffic problems with construction delays, accidents, and the worst scenario - - snow. Because of strict policies that require class attendance or failure, Mahon left early on days she knew she absolutely had to be there.

As a first-year law student with classes as early as 8 a.m., she left home by about 5:30 a.m. to arrive at school about 30 minutes early. Her schedule allowed her to be home by about 6 p.m., similar to a normal workday. Between classes Mahon spent every minute "studying, keeping up and living in the library."

To speed up the process, Mahon also took full class loads the past two summers.

"Once you decided not to make an annual salary the goal is to go through as fast as you can," she said.

As class schedule changes meant afternoon and early evening classes, Mahon worked part-time as an extern handling traffic court and some first appearances in the Effingham County State's Attorney's Office.

Mahon was one of the law school's first Neal Clinical Fellows. The program provides scholarships and support for students working in each of the law school's three clinical programs. Mahon's work in each of the legal clinics was excellent, said associate professor and clinical program Director Mary C. Rudasill.

"She did a lot of good work for us. I'm going to miss her," Rudasill said. Mahon's health care and administrative background was important in work on research projects, including one that focused on the juvenile court system in the First and Second judicial circuits, Rudasill said.

Non-traditional students tend to be very organized with their time and treat law school as a job, Rudasill said.

Mahon is uncertain what type of law she will specialize in; her immediate goal is passing the bar examination in February. She initially thought she would focus on health care law because of her background, but she enjoys business law, and family law, because of her work in the legal clinic.

Mahon credits law school faculty and other students for providing support. Students help one another and are very team-oriented, she said.

"The faculty is very supportive," she said. "They don't cut you any slack but they are very open-door, very open to questions and open to discussion. I never had any professors say, 'No, I don't have the time to talk to you.' " Offering progressive graduate and professional education is among the goals of Southern at 150: Building Excellence through Commitment, the blueprint for the development of the University by the time it celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2019.

(CAPTION: Realizing a dream -- Deborah J. Mahon of Effingham spent 20 years in the health care field before deciding to pursue a law degree. She will receive that degree from Southern Illinois University Carbondale on Saturday, Dec. 18. In order to graduate in two-and-a-half years, Mahon, the mother of three, has commuted daily from her home in Effingham to the Carbondale campus.)

Photo by Jeff Garner