When you’re from a place like Emporia, Kansas (home of the Unbound Gravel bicycle races and Dynamic Discs Open disc golf tournament), it’s easy to assimilate into Ottawa’s “folksy” charm. Such is the case of attorney and Assistant Appellate Defender Sean Conley, who serves the community that gave him a tremendous quality of life through his role as Vice President of the school board. With three children of his own creating waves in the district, ages 13, 10, and 4, he definitely has his hands full, whether that be filing an appeal, approving a budget, or trying to keep up with his eighth grader, Zelda.
“When I was younger and less secure, I felt almost apologetic or defensive about being from Kansas,” Sean says. For those of us who live in areas of low and flattened elevation, the physical topography may suggest no new heights for our heels. However, young people in small-town Kansas regularly answer the beckoning call of possibility outside their county lines. Sean is one such Kansan. He recalls an assembly near the end of his senior year of high school, where the destinations of college-bound students were announced.
“A lot of them went to Kansas University, but a lot of them went to places like Chicago or Northwestern,” Sean remembers. “It was really amazing to see, because you’re not always told that it’s possible.” Soon after graduation, Sean attended the University of Chicago and earned his Juris Doctor from DePaul University. As a freshly licensed attorney, he now had thirteen years of Chicago-lived experience on his docket, but it didn’t seem right when he thought about raising a family in the city. After weeks of sifting through job postings, he considered the ideal qualities of a place where he could settle.
“I was looking for jobs and it was during the recession,” Sean says, recalling the career trek that eventually brought him to Ottawa. “I wanted to do appeals and I had an interest in criminal law, and everything came together.” In his time living and working in the community since the big jump, he’s grown accustomed to investing back in the region, which has made him a beneficiary of its warmth and welcoming. “You feel good about being able to help, for sure,” he says. “One of the reasons I wanted to do this is because I have three kids in our school district and I wanted to have a voice.”
Sean certainly has a voice, and it’s a goal-oriented exclamation that seeks to cut through the crosstalk. As a board member, he believes communication with the public and district employees is paramount. “We have a great administration and staff who are very good at communicating needs and challenges to us on the board,” he says, a back-and-forth that offers him a “clear understanding” of obstacles that need to be addressed. We’d venture to say that anyone who can handle the high-stress environment of a courtroom with equally powerful stakes in play is a welcome fixture on our board. Somebody must address the tough decisions, and Sean doesn’t shy away from the gavel.