Katharine McCallie Gardner ’80

Bringing Her Education to Life in the Court System
For some GPS alumnae, ties to the school run much deeper than traditions and shared stories. Katharine McCallie Gardner ’80 has parlayed her family’s extensive legacy in education into a successful career as an attorney.

A Legacy of Education and Equity
As the daughter of former McCallie headmaster Spencer McCallie III, Gardner grew up on that campus, running around with other faculty kids as though on a wonderful playground. Her family’s schedule growing up was geared around the school—its activities and sports and the 100 acres on which to roam. Only later did she realize the significance of her family’s heritage and impact on education in Chattanooga.

“I realize now how important education is to our family,” Gardner says. “Three members of the McCallie family in the same generation founded McCallie and GPS—Grace was the sister of Spencer and Park, who founded McCallie.”

While Gardner didn’t pursue a career in education, her work today as a staff attorney for the federal court in Chattanooga provides a careful consideration of cases that come before the judge. Because she works for the court and serves a judge, she focuses on research and applying facts to assist the judge in making the right decision rather than taking a stance for a client.

“My lighthouse is always justice,” Gardner says. “I believe in the procedure and process. Everyone is entitled to due process. It is essential that courts provide fairness and the opportunity to be heard. I really believe that is a fundamental right that we have in our democratic society. I’m a tiny cog in that process.”

Gardner says she made the decision to go to law school in third grade as a student at Missionary Ridge Elementary during desegregation of Chattanooga’s public schools. She recalls being aware very early that not all people had the same access to justice or advantages as others did—and it really bothered her. 

“The more history I studied at GPS, the more I understood the law could be really powerful to protect people who needed to be protected. It’s an idealistic view of the law, but working for the courts, I can afford to have an idealistic view of the law because the goal is to do justice for all the parties” she says. “I try to do the right thing every day. Every single case I work on is important and involves parties who have needs and concerns, and I take that seriously.”

Choosing Her Own Path
As a staff attorney for U.S. Magistrate Judge Christopher Steger, Gardner works in ideas, theories, and concepts—skills she says she learned during her time at GPS. She loved the ideas and writing skills she gleaned from GPS classes such as English and U.S. and European history. Her teachers created an optimal training ground for what Gardner does today in her professional life. 

“My history and English classes were so exciting to me,” Gardner says. “We talked about how different ideas from parts of the world affected other places.” As a class the students would  develop ideas and then learn to express those verbally and in writing. “My GPS teachers reinforced the importance of good communication and how to write clearly through the many papers and essays we had to write. That work prepared me for what I’m doing today.” 

Gardner commends the essay writing from GPS courses and tests for especially preparing her for law school, where it was of no consequence for her to work through a three-hour written exam. She graduated summa cum laude with her juris doctorate from Indiana University. 

During her undergraduate work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, she realized her female peers weren’t talking in class and that she, without thinking much of it, often raised her hand to offer a theory or make comments.

“I realized I was one of the very few women in college who would do that—and GPS did that for me,” Gardner says. “I wasn’t intimidated talking to professors and developing important relationships with my teachers. GPS gave me the confidence in an academic setting to say what I thought and advocate for myself.”

A Focus on Writing
Gardner still uses the skills she needed to graduate with honors from law school. Some of her success at GPS and beyond she attributes to writing a paper every week—something that may not be possible in schools with larger class sizes. 

“I learned early on to formulate my ideas clearly and support and explain them,” Gardner says. “As my teacher Virginia Thurston would say for essays, ‘Challenge the question!’ A question will have assumptions built into it, and you don’t have to agree. That was brilliant advice I still use today.”

Gardner, who married high school sweetheart Ellis Gardner, a McCallie graduate, also experienced GPS as a parent. Her daughter, Becky ’13, is also a strong writer, skills she attributes to GPS as well. They are also skills she uses as a first-year law student at Columbia University in New York. 

“GPS will prepare your daughter to go far academically and in life,” Gardner says. “She will get a top, top education and will be able to do well anywhere she goes if she applies herself. It is truly a preparatory school.”