Paula Sass Donnelly
new mexico state university donor

Connecting an Aggie Legend to Future Leaders

New Mexico judge Thomas A. Donnelly ’52 was known throughout the state for his integrity, compassion and fairness. He spent 19 years on the bench at the New Mexico Court of Appeals, eight years as a First Judicial District judge, and many more as assistant state attorney general and a staff attorney for the New Mexico Legislature. But it was his 34 years with Paula Sass Donnelly that meant the most to him, spending his happiest days sharing laughter, adventure and lifelong friendships. To honor her legendary Aggie husband, Paula created a scholarship in the NMSU College of Arts and Sciences to carry on his legacy of public service and leadership.

new mexico state university scholarship

An Aggie by Choice

Born in New York City, Tom Donnelly grew up in Albuquerque as the only child of Thomas C. and Mabel Claire Donnelly. His father moved the family west to New Mexico in the mid-1930s to take a job at New Mexico Western University in Silver City as professor of Political Science and department chair.

After graduating from Albuquerque High School in 1948, Tom headed for Las Cruces to obtain a bachelor’s degree in history from New Mexico State University. At 6' 6" he was a natural as an Aggie basketball letterman – joining the team during his junior year. The Aggies placed second in their division that year, in part due to the diligence of newer team members like Tom.

“’Red’ is one of the boys who came up without any experience and is getting it the hard way,” his coach wrote in the yearbook in 1950. Another entry says Tom was added to the squad when all the “big men” on the team were injured, and “provided the extra height necessary to play against the mastodons of the court.”

“The team always called him ‘Big Red’” Paula recalled. After all the players graduated and settled into their careers, they would often gather in the fall to play a pick-up game, have dinner at La Posta, meet up at the home of teammate Bob Porter and attend an Aggies basketball game together – for over 40 years.

Carving a Path

But there was much more than basketball on young Tom’s mind after graduation. Taking a page from his father’s life, Tom pursued a master's degree in government and economics from the University of New Mexico. Plans changed in 1954 when he answered the call of duty and served in the U.S. Army's anti-aircraft artillery division during the Korean War for two years. Once he returned stateside, he went on to earn his law degree at the University of Arizona and was admitted to both the Arizona and New Mexico bars. From there, Tom led a storied career as both an attorney and judge – a copy of the U.S. Constitution never far from reach.

After a brief stint in private practice, he moved to the public arena, beginning as a staff attorney for the New Mexico Legislature. During his tenure, he drafted the state’s first comprehensive criminal code revision since territorial times. Before running for district judge in 1972, his reform-minded nature was evident when he proposed legislation aimed at improving procedures for district courts.

One remarkable case in which he ruled was the theft of La Conquistadora, a 30-inch-tall wooden statue of the Virgin Mary that is believed to be the first Madonna and Child statue ever brought to the United States. It was stolen by two young men – one still a minor and one just 18 – who sent a ransom note (written in Italian, oddly enough) demanding $150,000 for the icon’s safe return and immunity from prosecution. Judge Donnelly did not grant immunity, sentenced the two men to incarceration and saw that the beloved statue was returned to her home in the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi in Santa Fe.

A Meeting by Chance

Despite the heavy publicity surrounding Las Conquistadora, most of Judge Donnelly’s judicial service was spent in the family courts of New Mexico presiding over family matters of all kinds. “His favorite thing to do was to perform marriages and adoptions,” remembers Paula, “because they brought joy to everyone.” And that’s where the two met.

While working for the Department of Education in Santa Fe, Paula asked Judge Donnelly to perform the wedding of a friend. As they waited for the bride, the two struck up a conversation, and Judge Donnelly never forgot Paula after that. They dated for several years and finally married in 1990.

“The connection was amazing,” Paula remembers. “How lucky I was to have 34 years with such a smart, kind and delightful human being.”

Uniting for Life

Once they wed, Tom and Paula were inseparable, taking trips around the world, sharing dinner with friends and reconnecting with NMSU colleagues. Paula remembers a fascinating trip they took to Nazca, Peru to see the ancient geoglyphs in the desert – line art drawings so expansive they can only be taken in fully from above, by plane. “Our travels together were wonderful because he was always learning about people, cultures, architecture and food. He was so interested in everything,” she says.

On a hiking trip to Provence, Paula recalls days filled with the proverbial French food and wine. But what she remembers most is their hike up Mont Sainte Victoire, one of the highest mountains in southern France. Several of their fellow hikers needed help climbing up the jagged trails, and Judge Donnelly—who towered over them with his long legs—acted as a makeshift cicerone, pulling them up the slopes at a 90-degree angle, not far from falling down the mountain himself. “We both adored that trip.”

He also had a droll sense of humor, something most people didn’t expect from such a well-respected jurist. His wit was put to further use when he began writing short stories and fiction after retiring from the bench, something that “provides me more latitude,” he once said. One of his many short stories, The Incredible Psychic Chicken, won an award from the Southwest Writer’s Association, and a novel – a detective story that takes place in Los Alamos and Santa Fe – awaits publication.

Although Tom was bedridden for his last three years, he refused to stop celebrating life. He and Paula would have little cocktail parties in the bedroom and invite close friends over to read his short stories aloud. “I would see him sitting there, even smiling a little bit at his own humor.”

Preserving a Legacy

After his passing, Paula began to think about how she could honor Tom’s memory. “Education has always been very important to me, and knowing how strongly Tom felt about education and public service, a scholarship seemed like a wonderful way for him to be remembered.” She created a planned gift in the form of the Thomas Allyn Donnelly Endowed Scholarship, supporting students in the NMSU College of Arts and Sciences. Recipients must have a declared major in the Department of History or Department of Government and demonstrate leadership skills and community service.

The Donnelly scholarship’s first recipient, Andrew Pick-Roth, is majoring in Government and Communication Studies at NMSU. He recently spent three semesters in South Korea studying global reconciliation and international relations, leading to a desire to work toward solving the Korean Peninsula’s nuclear disarmament problem. Paula was elated to meet Andrew earlier this year and learn of his aspirations. They also share several connections—a love of music and singing, family members with ties to the Korean War, and a desire to pursue peace and justice.

“The school (NMSU) and the team meant so much to Tom, and this is a way to both preserve his legacy and support our students. What better way to do that?” she says. “Tom was a New Mexican through and through, and putting that all together just made so much sense.”

For someone who was modest to a fault, would Judge Donnelly have ruled in favor of such a tribute? “We never talked about any of this,” Paula says. “He had no idea. But I love that it’s here at NMSU, where I know he had such a good education and made wonderful friendships that lasted for a lifetime.”