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Living Legends

Joann Miller: Encouraging Women To Get Involved

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Joann Miller still wants to improve things and get recognition for the part women play in making Alexandria a special place to live. She has only one complaint about the 2013 Alexandria Living Legends: “There weren’t enough women nominated. What can we do to fix that?”

— In 1967 Alexandria won the luck of the draw. Ed Miller received orders to report to the Pentagon after his posting as an Air Force attaché in Italy. He drew a circle on a map and asked his wife Joann to find a house within it. On her first day out she found a house in Alexandria that had gone on the market only the night before. The house was still under construction so the couple could pick out everything they wanted to make it their own.

“We never planned to spend the rest of our lives there. But we loved both the house and Alexandria so we stayed,” Miller said. “This is an ideal community for people who want to get involved. People just get in there and do something.”

Few if any exemplify service to vulnerable women, children and the aged better than Joann Miller. As a volunteer she served as a counselor at the Alexandria Battered Women’s Shelter. She served on the Alexandria Community Services Board and chaired its substance abuse committee. She led the public safety committee of Alexandria’s Commission on Aging.

According to Bob Eiffert, then director of the Alexandria Agency on Aging, she was especially concerned about raising awareness of fraud against seniors. She brought in representatives from the offices of the Virginia Commonwealth’s Attorney and the Virginia Attorney General to make presentations on the subject to the commission and at the city’s senior centers.

MILLER VOLUNTEERED as a counselor with the ecumenical human services nonprofit ALIVE! She took homeless families into her home when other shelter was not available. She helped expand Alexandria’s 4-H youth urban extension through a program that helped girls develop life goals.

Miller and Barbara Joseph served on the ad hoc committee that led to the Alexandria Commission on Women and became members of the new commission. Joseph served as its first chair, Miller as vice chair. At the time women were allowed only limited positions with the Alexandria Fire Department, such as working on the ambulance. Some of the women asked the newly formed commission to raise the issue of discrimination. “Barbara and I were both free to go around and annoy people on the issues,” said Miller. The problem was pointed out and a solution suggested. The resulting changes were the commission’s first success.

For decades Miller counseled women of all ages and backgrounds on ways to use their experience and talents to serve in leadership and supporting roles. As an active political leader and the first woman to chair the Alexandria Democratic Committee (ADC), Miller encouraged women to run for political office, believing their service vital to improving the community. People knew they could come to her for guidance on how to be effectively involved. Her experience, generosity and patient counseling helped many. Those she counseled often went on to help others.

Susan Kellom, a former chair of the ADC, appreciated Miller’s taking her under her wing in 1983 when Kellom moved to Alexandria. “Joann taught me so much about how to get along in local politics. It was much different from the military where I spent my career.” Kellom calls Miller “a calm in the midst of political storms.”

Mike Curry, who has been involved in the ADC and local politics for many years, said, “Joann was a loving mother hen in her work with the ADC. She would liken her work to herding cats, which she did with great care.”

Kellom and Curry remember that Miller always welcomed new members to ADC, assured them they were needed, then put them to work. She also fed them. Curry recalls Miller always having a bag of candy to dole out to restless Alexandria delegates at local and state conventions. Lois Walker, a former member of the Alexandria City Council and Miller’s friend for decades, said, “We managed campaigns from her dining room. Joann is a wonderful cook so we could always depend on good food around her kitchen table.” Many enjoyed the benefits of Miller’s cooking skills at her legendary New Year’s Day parties.

MILLER JOINED the American Association of University Women in Colorado while her husband was on the faculty of the Air Force Academy. She served two years as president of the Alexandria chapter. She also served on the board of AAUW of Virginia, which supports girls by advocating for equality in school programs and athletics. Representing AAUW, Miller helped former Vice Mayor Mel Bergheim write Alexandria’s law on consumer protection.

“I first met Joann many years ago when she was president of the Alexandria branch of the American Association of University Women and I had just joined,” said Patti Schmidt. “She invited me home for dinner and I have really never left. After 40 years that's a lot of meals. Joann has been a role model, mentor, sister and most of all a wonderful friend.”

For six years Miller chaired the budget and allocation committee of United Way of the National Capital Area, an experience that gave her insight into issues confronting surrounding jurisdictions. Miller represented Alexandria on the human resources committee of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments’ Human Resources Committee. She served a term as chair of that committee.

In 2010 Miller’s contributions were recognized by the Alexandria Commission for Women, which honored her with the Marian Van Landingham Legislation and Public Policy Award, and the Alexandria Commission on Aging, which honored her with the Annie B. Rose Lifetime Achievement Award.

Norma Gattsek, who served with Miller on the Commission on Women, said of Miller, “Joann is that special friend that you feel very lucky to have in your life, the person you can always just pick up where you left off no matter how long it has been since you last saw each other. Joann’s impact on our community and on everyone around her is beyond measure. I especially admire Joann, not only for her overall advocacy for women, but her inherent ability to see who would benefit from her special brand of support and give exactly what is needed.”

Miller served as a trustee of the Northern Virginia Fine Arts Association. For seven years she was a docent at the National Gallery of Art, leading tours for children. When gallery officials discovered she had had acquired a background in Renaissance art while living in Italy, she was also asked to guide Christmas tours.

In addition to Miller’s many contributions to Alexandria, she applied her leadership and management skills to making a home for her husband and three children: Adrienne Miller, Maria Van Horn and Michael Miller. Adrienne and Maria followed their mother into public service. Adrienne became a detective for the Alexandria Police Department. Maria has worked on Capitol Hill. Michael followed his father’s interest in aeronautics and, according to Miller, “can fix anything.”

Joann and Ed met in Bordeaux, France, where she was working for the U. S. Information Agency after earning a B.A. in philosophy from the University of Detroit. Detroit is her home town. After marrying in 1953, the couple moved frequently during his early career.

Miller still wants to improve things and get recognition for the part women play in making Alexandria a special place to live. She has only one complaint about the 2013 Alexandria Living Legends: “There weren’t enough women nominated. What can we do to fix that?”

Living Legends of Alexandria is an ongoing 501(c)(3) photo-documentary project to identify, honor and chronicle the people making current history in Alexandria.