Biographical / Historical
Laura Ellen (Miller) Derry was born near Horse Cave, Kentucky, on May 22, 1905. She was one of nine children of Robert Emmett and Cattie Lou (Rowntree) Miller. She studied at Rutgers University and New Jersey State Teachers College. She ultimately received an A.B. degree from Bowling Green (Kentucky) College of Commerce in 1933. Three years later Derry earned a LL.B. degree from the Jefferson School of Law in Louisville. She was one of five women in a class of 126. She received an honorary doctorate from the University of Louisville in 1950.
Derry married Major Stephen Derry on August 12, 1944. The couple had one daughter, Portia Kay, born in 1948. After leaving military service, Stephen Derry opened a private engineering firm, headquartered in Florida.
Laura Derry was admitted to the Kentucky bar in 1936 and practiced law in Louisville. During the first years of her practice she taught history and business education, opening her law office after classes ended. In 1937 Derry was admitted to practice in federal court. Derry became the first female to represent a defendant in a court-martial of the United States Army. The case was a 1944 rape trial of a Fort Knox soldier who faced a possible death sentence. The soldier was acquitted and the trial became a test case.
Derry became an accredited observer to the United Nations in 1946. She also served as a representative to the UN Relief and Rehabilitation Council meeting in 1946, and as a representative to the President's Highway Conference from 1945 to 1946. Derry was also a participant in the President's Highway Safety Conference in Washington, D.C., in 1956. In 1949 Derry compiled and edited the Digest of Women Lawyers and Judges. She conducted a national survey of women in public service in 1956 and a survey of women lawyers in public service in the United States the following year.
In 1957 Laura Derry was selected by the German Embassy in Washington, D.C., as one of seven United States attorneys to make a thirty-day tour of West Germany as guests as of the West German government. While in Europe, Derry along with other United States attorneys, was honored with an invitation by Great Britain's Queen Elizabeth II to a reception in the garden of Buckingham Palace.
Derry maintained membership in many organizations including the International Association of Women Lawyers, National Association of Women Lawyers, Louisville and Kentucky Bar Associations, National Association of Parliamentarians, and the legal honorary Kappa Beta Pi. Derry held the office of president of the National Association of Women Lawyers in 1946 and served as an officer in the parliamentarian group as well.
Laura Derry maintained residences in Louisville and the Fort Lauderdale area of Florida. She also owned a farm near Leitchfield, Kentucky, where tenant farmers raised tobacco and trees.
She remained in practice in Louisville until 1990, just three years before her death at the age of 87. She was survived by her daughter, Portia Derry Brown, two brothers, John R. and Willie L. Miller and two sisters, Clara Miller Cobb and Cattie Lou Miller. Cattie Lou gained local prominence as a longtime official in Kentucky state government. She was the first woman to head a department in state government when she was appointed commissioner of the Department for Public Information by Governor Bert Combs in 1960. Cattie Lou Miller also served as an assistant to five governors and in three cabinet positions during her career.