O'Connor's remarks came during Centre's 181st commencement. In a ceremony conducted in a sweltering Newlin Hall, President John Roush presented bachelor's degrees to a record 263 graduates and honorary degrees to O'Connor and two other dignitaries: a doctor of divinity to William Edward Farley of Nashville, a Centre graduate and nationally-known Presbyterian theologian; a doctor of humane letters to Lino Tagliapietra of Venice, Italy, a world-renowned glass artist; and a doctor of laws to O'Connor.
In her speech, O'Connor set the tone with a poem by an unknown author in which an old man builds a bridge across a stream. While the old man does not need the bridge for himself, he decides it will be something that younger generations can use.
"This nation needs hard-working, visionary, dedicated people, public servants, to build bridges between one era to the next, from one generation to the next, from one group to another, from one kind of society to a better society," said the 74-year-old jurist, who was making her second visit to Centre, her first coming in 1987.
"I hope you will become a generation of bridge builders."
In her own life, O'Connor said it took the courage of some bridge builders - and door openers - so that she could pursue a career in law. After graduating high in her class at the prestigious Stanford University College of Law in 1952, she could not find a job at a law firm.
"The only job offer I received (after graduation) was to be a legal secretary," said O'Connor of a profession that was male-dominated when she began in the 1950s but now has an abundance of female lawyers.
President Reagan nominated her in 1981
She later did join a law firm and went on to become state attorney general and a superior court judge in Arizona. In 1981 she was nominated by President Reagan to the U.S. Supreme Court and became the first woman on the highest court in the land.
While she has been involved in numerous important rulings of the court during her 23-year tenure - often casting key votes in 5-4 decisions and writing the opinions for the majorities - O'Connor said little the court has done in recent years compares to the society-changing Brown vs. Topeka board ruling. And she noted how Harlan and Vinson helped pave the way for it and held them up as bridge-building role models to the Centre graduates.
In Harlan's case, he cast the dissenting vote in Plessy vs. Ferguson in 1896, the ruling that established two "separate but equal" school systems, one for whites and one for blacks. While Harlan was far outnumbered on the court, his opinion was frequently cited over the intervening years by attorneys and civil rights leaders in their battle to make desegregation illegal.
"Justice Harlan laid the first stone in the bridge that took the country from segregated to desegregated schools," O'Connor said.
While Chief Justice Earl Warren receives most of the credit in Brown vs. Topeka board ruling, his immediate predecessor, Vinson, had played an important role, O'Connor said. Vinson had heard some preliminary arguments in the case but died of a heart attack, and was replaced by Warren, before the court made its ruling, she said.
As the 13th chief justice, O'Connor said Vinson's "stones in the bridge" included a ruling in 1948 in which racial restrictions surrounding the sale of property were eliminated and one in 1950 in which the University of Texas was blocked from establishing a separate law school for a single black student - in a basement of a Houston building.
"Chief Justice Vinson helped complete the bridge that was started by Justice Harlan," O'Connor said.