Speaking from everywhere but the podium reserved for her, Judge Lynn Toler walked, stomped and waved her arms across the stage in an inspirational speech Thursday to students at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.
The star of the long-running TV show “Divorce Court” peppered her speech with advice on subjects such as relationships, money management and good decision-making. The speech was the keynote of UAPB’s annual Lyceum event.
Also in attendance was Lt. General Aundre F. Piggee, one of the highest-ranking African-American members of the U.S. Army and a graduate of UAPB.
Toler graduated from Harvard University and University of Pennsylvania School of Law. She later ran successfully as a Republican for a municipal judgeship in heavily Democratic Cuyahoga County, Ohio. She said that representatives of Fox Broadcasting Company reached out to her one day, and, after a brief run on the court show “Power of Attorney,” she began hosting “Divorce Court” in 2006.
On the show, Toler frequently dishes criticism, advice and encouragement to bickering couples on topics such as manhood, female empowerment and the nature of healthy relationships. She has written three books, including a book on marriage and a memoir featuring her mother’s advice for living.
Her presence drew a capacity audience to J.M. Ross Auditorium, which seats 600 people. Toler dispensed advice on many familiar issues.
She described herself as a shy girl growing up who wanted to be a doctor, “so I could put people to sleep,” she joked. But when she got to college she changed course “because I couldn’t do the math. This is my backup career.”
Pivoting from her original plan was a valuable lesson, she said. While going through life, she said one must use your “peripheral vision” and always remain open to other opportunities.
“Young people: Only go steady with your ideas, never marry,” she said. “Because the stuff I thought I knew at 22 makes me scream at 57. I hope I’m a much better version of myself at 58.”
She ran as a Republican in her first judicial race in Cleveland, she said, because the Democratic Party there was insular and didn’t want African-American judges. Even though the community was majority African-American, party officials assumed they would never vote for a Republican, she said.
She also told the audience to be persistent. When she was eight years old, she said she was denied entrance to a white swimming pool. When she told her father, he took her to a pool in the “inner-city” to learn how to swim, but the children there were mean to her because she was well-off. When she told him she didn’t want to go back, he insisted, and eight weeks later she said she was doing every type of swimming stroke there was.
“You’ve got to earn your way out” of difficult situations, she said.
She offered many other pieces of advice, including:
You’re going to make mistakes, but learn from them: “The only way to not make mistakes is if you don’t try. If you’re not trying, you’ll stay in the same place. If you’re gonna stay in the same place, you might as well call it a day… I love to learn that I’m the chick that did the wrong thing, because I can fix this chick.”
Learn from—or “steal”—from other people: “I steal all day every day. It’s one of my favorite things to do. Stories, abilities, knowledge. Everybody has something you can learn from. Maybe it’s a phrase you used, maybe it’s something that didn’t work out. I steal all the time.”
Don’t just stand in a room with people that agree with you: “Your ideas will never be honed [if they are not challenged]. Your ability to change positions will go [away].”
Collect options, not possessions: Toler said she does not live an extravagant lifestyle. At home she wears Keds shoes purchased from Payless Shoe Store, and she does not have a closet full of expensive shoes and clothes. However, “I’ll tell what I also don’t have: a mortgage,” she said. “I’ll tell you what I do have: options. I’d like to encourage you to collect options. It’s hard to pay for college if you’re paying Mr. Jordan and Mr. Yves Saint Laurent. They already sent their kids through college.
“If you can look in your garage and your closet and see your bank account, you’re doing it wrong. Don’t be a consumer, be a person who has options.”
Avoid paying the “Stupid Tax”: “The stupid tax is the $25 fine you pay because you didn’t put a quarter in the traffic meter,” she said. “It’s getting a $1,500 apartment you can’t afford, so you pay a $50 late fee every month.”
Claim every part of your life: “Vote in every election, not just ones where a black man is running,” she said. She urged the audience to vote in judges’ races and serve on juries. Her husband served on a jury once where he was the only African-American, and ultimately prevented the defendant from being convicted. “The other jurors were saying, ‘Well he probably did it, he probably did this.’ [Her husband] said, ‘Probably ain’t gonna do it.’ He stopped that guy from going to jail, because he stood his ground in a jury room.”
Every minute that you live is both an option and an opportunity: “Every word you say can heal or divide things. I want you to own all of it outright and in full. Never just say, ‘Whatever, it doesn’t matter.’ Because it does.”
After her speech, Toler took questions from several audience members. One person asked how she knew when to let go of a difficult problem.
“Sometimes there isn’t a right answer,” Toler said, saying that different solutions offer different benefits. “Choose what benefits you want. Move forward, and once you’ve made your decision, let it go.”
Pulaski County District Court Judge Rita Bailey told Toler that she traveled from Little Rock to watch her speak. She asked Toler what she thought of partisan judicial races, saying that she defeated a very popular Democratic political figure in her last race.
“I became one of my community’s partners,” Toler said. “I never stopped campaigning. You’ve got whatever your judicial term is to always be engaged.”
Bailey defeated State Sen. David Johnson (D) in a judicial race in Pulaski County in 2016.
Junior Ajia Richardson, a political science major and UAPB basketball player who aspires to attend law school and become an attorney, asked Toler for advice for students “who know what they want to do, but how do I get there?”
“What happens is, you have a passion, and you have opportunities,” Toler said. “Attach yourself to opportunities that fit the passion. I never maneuvered to get on TV. FOX found me. They were looking for an interesting person. I was always there with sparklers on. Light your sparklers.”