Fifty years ago, a landmark decision by the Board of Trustees transformed our school from Albuquerque Boys Academy to Albuquerque Academy. In the fall of 1973, 22 girls entered the sophomore class. From distinguished scholars and pioneering athletes to compassionate philanthropists and trailblazing professionals, these women have made an indelible mark on our school and the world beyond.
As part of a new alumni series, Alumni Council member Ted Alcorn ’01 enjoyed speaking with one of the first women to attend the school, law professor Deborah Cantrell ’78.
Deborah Cantrell Interview by Ted Alcorn ’01
Two weeks after crossing the Rocky Mountains by foot, Deborah Cantrell ’78 was still nursing her blistered toes. This July she was perhaps the only law professor to walk the Colorado Trail, a nearly 500-mile trek running east-west across the state. She was almost certainly the only such professor with a splash of rainbow-colored hair.
Deborah is not afraid to stand out. In her years at the Academy, she had little choice — her class was the third to admit girls. The school integrated awkwardly; for example, she recalled how all the female students were placed into a single math class, regardless of level.
But being in a tiny minority among the students had its benefits, too. She walked onto the softball, track, and field hockey teams. And in spite of typical high school-age pressures to conform, she found — and founded — a culture among her peer athletes that celebrated all teammates as they were.
The Academy was intellectually challenging, but most importantly, the school taught her to challenge herself, to truly engage. “I could not get away with being a sloppy thinker,” she said. “I never felt like I was chastised or embarrassed or shamed, but I absolutely felt like I was being called forward to do better, bring more.
“It’s not that you have to know what you want to do, because many of us don’t,” she said. “The Academy fosters the steadfastness and the willingness to step into uncertainty.”
That practice is apparent in the life Deborah has built in the decades since. After graduating from law school in California and making partner in a firm, she realized her heart was really in public interest work. So she returned to New Mexico to help set up a program to assist seniors around the state with their legal affairs and then ran a large anti-poverty non-profit. The through-line, she said, was her belief in proactively seeking out ways to be of service. “I think lawyers have an obligation to make the effort to find the communities that could benefit from assistance,” she said.
The Academy left a mark on her spirituality, too. A visit Mr. Pennington’s class on world religions took to a Zen monastery helped spark what is now her deep commitment to Buddhist practice. She’s written legal scholarship about the religion, and it also shapes her everyday choices. She believes deeply that even if she can’t change the world, every action she takes, no matter how trivial, has consequences. “I need to live a good life each day, being compassionate, equitable, thoughtful,” she said, whether that is carefully listening to a student or helping someone at the grocery store.
Her month-long walk this summer was a good reminder of this inescapable responsibility. For all the solitude she found in the high mountains, she was also, inevitably, a member of a group of people moving the same direction along the trail. “You are always in community.”