“Johnny Edwards was in my class, and
His staff once even ordered a collection
he, and many others, have gone on to
make contributions,” Connette says of
the former U.S. senator and two-time
presidential candidate. “We came through
our college years in a culture committed to
public service, and we all ended up at law
school together. The culture at UNC was to
nurture community leaders. It’s not giving
back; it’s just what you do.”
In addition to representing plaintiffs in
challenging lawsuits, the partner at Essex
Richards has taken active leadership roles
with nonprofits ranging from The Light
Factory, a small photographic arts group in
Charlotte, to two-year stints as president of
both the state and national United Cerebral
Palsy organizations. “He feels we are only as
great as we treat our most disadvantaged
citizens,” says Phelps Sprinkle, former
executive vice president of the state group,
who worked closely with Connette for years.
of WWWD (“What Would Woody Do?”)
mugs as a surprise.
But helping the disadvantaged through
the law wasn’t the plan. In fact, there
wasn’t much of an original plan.
CONNETTE GRADUATED IN POLITICAL
SCIENCE from Davidson in the spring of 1974.
“It was the tail end of the Vietnam War, when
After a year as a practicing attorney, he
folks tended to stay in school and go to grad
school, though the draft was over,” he says,
then chuckles. “It was the great inertia of the
undergraduate continuing to grad school.”
At this point, Connette knew so little about
the law that he showed up at UNC School of
Law’s orientation not knowing whether law
school lasted for two or three years; and he
was so indifferent that he often incurred late
fees for his tuition payments because he was
unsure whether to continue. “I was a lost ball
in tall weeds,” he says.
found his way.
Working in Hartford, Connecticut, at
the Legal Aid Society, he was part of a
six-attorney office that brought successful
suits on behalf of low-income people, often
over civil rights violations. He loved the
work. “If anybody during law school could
have made me understand how much
fun law practice was, I would have been a
much better student,” he says.
After two years in Hartford, he came back to
North Carolina and landed a job in Gastonia
with Legal Services of Southern Piedmont.
Within two years, he began a case that
would last 16 years and change the state’s
standards for providing services for adults with
intellectual or physical disabilities.
Thomas S.’s mother gave him up for
adoption when he was born, but Gaston
County Social Services didn’t try to
place him with a family because of mild
disabilities. “Back in those days, more
than 50 years ago, Gaston [Department of
Social Services], like a lot of places, had an
operating principle that they would only
place perfect babies,” Connette says. “If
Thomas had been adopted, he probably
would have grown up, and he would have
Instead, Thomas endured more than 20
foster-care and group-home placements
and was admitted periodically to
Broughton Hospital in Morganton. When
he turned 18, federal law required he be
housed in the least-restrictive environment
possible with community-based services.