A group of volunteers helps to preserve the former home of former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor by slinging some mud on the original adobe blocks. Hannah Gaber/

It is not a misstatement to say the O’Connor House is the antithesis of mudslinging.

Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s former residence was moved to Tempe’s portion of Papago Park in 2009 to be a center of civil discourse on matters of public policy. It has hosted bipartisan legislative dinners and various speakers, all in the spirit of trying to air civic issues without descending into name calling.

But on Friday, the 1950s-era adobe house was the epitome of mudslinging.

A small cadre of volunteers busily slapped paint brushes full of mud onto the home’s adobe bricks. Civility was not necessarily top of mind: The left side of Janie Ellis’ face was caked in mud, courtesy of a splatter from longtime friend and former Tempe Mayor Hugh Hallman. His right arm and shoulder showed the gritty evidence of Ellis’ return slap.

Mudslinging, as it turns out, is not for the faint of heart. Nor the clean of wardrobe.

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The dirt on mudslinging 

Ellis is a mudslinging pro: She grew up in an adobe home where she learned the ins and outs of a process that is alternatively called milk washing. Ellis gives it its more technical name: mud slipping, or using mud to provide a protective layer for the 60-year-old bricks.

The mud is followed with a coating of non-fat milk to seal the finish and prevent the bricks from giving off a dusty residue. Why non-fat milk? It doesn’t stink so much as milk with fat as it dries and soaks into the bricks, Ellis said.

Ellis supervised Friday’s mudslinging, digging up dirt from her Scottsdale residence and hauling it to the O’Connor House to make the paste that will protect the house’s exterior from erosion.

For her, the work is a labor of love. Her father, George Ellis, made the bricks that John and Sandra O’Connor used to build their home.

She only learned that decades later, when Hallman, then the Tempe mayor, tapped her adobe expertise to help with the house’s relocation from Paradise Valley to the Tempe site. Justice O’Connor mentioned the brick maker and connected the name with Ellis when she introduced herself.

Since then, she’s tended to the O’Connor House as if it were her own. In fact, she said, she takes better care of the house than her own home. That’s why she is the premier mudslinger and leads the periodic refreshes of the historic adobe home. The next session is dependent on the weather: If there’s a lot of rain, mudslinging will happen sooner rather than later. The last one happened five or so years ago.

The irony of the house getting hit with mud while hosting civility events is not lost on supporters like Ellis and Hallman.

“We sling our mud literally, while others do it figuratively,” Hallman joked, as he washed mud off his arms at the end of Friday’s session

Reach the reporter at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter, @maryjpitzl.


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