When Martha Ann Miller’s autobiography is finished, which should be any time now, it will be titled “A Hundred Years and Not Ready for the Rocking Chair Yet.” And it will tell the story of how a farm girl from southern Indiana won a college scholarship at 13, eventually landed in Arlington County, helped fight for the right to have Virginia’s first elected school board and then taught in the red-hot vortex of the battle over school desegregation.
There is a rocking chair in her Arlington apartment. But it’s stuffed behind a sofa, and no one ever uses it.
Miller turns 100 Saturday, and she is enjoying the attention — and freebies — that it brings. She got a card from President Obama and a commendation from the Virginia House of Delegates. She got a free hairdo and a free cab ride this week from people who felt she had earned it.
There are congratulations cards piling up on her dining room table, and various celebrations are planned, including one at Clarendon United Methodist Church, where she’s been an active member for 67 years and remains head of the music committee.
These might be daunting physical demands on a centenarian. But Miller is untroubled. In the course of a two-hour chat, she regularly bounced up and down to answer the phone or the door, or to point out something from her family life. She no longer drives — had to stop at 92 — but she takes taxis everywhere, exercises regularly to maintain her health, still plays bridge and watches what she eats.
And her memory is simply amazing. She rattles off phone numbers and has uncanny recall of key dates, places and people with verifiable accuracy.
So what’s next?
“Well, finish my autobiography,” Miller said. “And then I’ll be busy doing something. I’m not one to sit around.”
She never has.
Miller was a key player in changing how Virginia schools are governed, and she played a role in the state’s messy fight over desegregation.
Public school in Virginia in the 1940s was largely for the poor, Miller said, and attempts to change it went nowhere. She helped run a petition drive aimed at persuading the Arlington School Board to issue bonds for new schools and gathered 5,000 signatures. The board ignored them.
School boards were appointed by a “trustee electoral board,” which was appointed by a circuit court judge. Miller’s husband, lawyer Malcolm D. Miller, led a delegation to Richmond in 1947, and the General Assembly passed a law allowing Arlington, alone, to vote on whether to elect its own school board. The booming suburb did so.
In 1951, Miller began working as a substitute teacher in home economics; she was later hired full time and started teaching math. After the Supreme Court’s 1954 desegregation ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, the Arlington School Board decided to integrate its schools. This led the General Assembly, in 1956, to revoke Arlington’s right to elect its school board, and no Virginia school boards were elected again until the law was changed in 1992.
Meanwhile, desegregation moved through the courts, and Miller’s Stratford Junior High School was chosen to admit four black seventh-graders. The principal asked the teachers who would teach them. Miller said some refused. But Miller gladly volunteered.
With police surrounding the school and anxious parents camped out next door, the students entered Stratford on Feb. 2, 1959, without incident. President Dwight D. Eisenhower commended Arlington for calmly handling the situation.
Miller said she never hesitated to teach two of the black students. “They’re human beings like the rest of us, and they should be treated that way,” she said. Much of Virginia, under the rubric “massive resistance,” did not agree.
“She’s the most remarkable person I’ve ever met,” said John Melnick, a District lawyer and longtime friend who has known Miller for about 50 years. “She’s well respected at the church and extremely active,” he said, noting that she launched a women’s group years ago and also created a children’s book section in the church library.
In addition to being a longtime pillar of her church, a mother of four and a teacher in Arlington for 23 years (top salary: $18,500), Miller has been an active member of the American Association of University Women since 1944.
How has she made it so long and so well? “Super Vitamin B complex,” she said without hesitation, which has all the Vitamin Bs, plus Vitamin C and folic acid. She began taking it in 1965, stopped it once in 2000 and soon felt miserable, resumed taking it and returned to health. She has never broken a bone and has withstood several falls, she said.
Also, having outlived her husband and two of her children, “the church has been my family when my family hasn’t been here,” she said. There’s also the matter of good genes: Her mother lived to be 96.
Martha Ann Riggs was the youngest of four children raised on a farm outside Evansville, Ind. With neighbors in the distance, the Methodist church and the 4-H youth clubs were her only social options.
Her siblings were all boys, so she followed her mother around, “doing whatever she did.” And what she particularly loved to do was bake. Cakes, pies, bread — everything, and in volume.
In 1925, she entered a 4-H baking contest, and her loaf of bread won first prize in the state. At the time, Miller said, Purdue University was looking to recruit female students, and they offered to hold open a full scholarship for her. She was 13 and accepted.