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She fought for people in need. Tri-Cities mourns a social justice warrior

Shirley Miller with her children.
Shirley Miller with her children. Courtesy of the Miller family

Shirley Miller moved to the Tri-Cities from the Midwest in the early ‘50s with her husband, Norm.

It was nighttime when they arrived. She couldn’t fully take in the sparse desert landscape.

When she woke up the next morning and looked around, she started to cry.

“It was dusty, there were no trees,” said her son Andy Miller. “Dad promised her they’d leave after one year. Then it was two years. But she ended up loving the Tri-Cities and never left.”

Shirley Miller, who died Sept. 21 at age 88, left a significant and lasting mark on the community she came to call home. She was a business owner, a political leader, a social justice warrior.

She fought for civil rights, for women, for farm workers, for gay rights — sometimes at risk to herself.

She was brave, compassionate and ahead of her time, said Andy Miller, who’s Benton County’s prosecuting attorney.

At the same time, she was devoted to her family.

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Shirley Miller with her daughter, Jennifer Miller Paci, at a local March for Science. Courtesy of the Miller family

“We kids came first and foremost,” said her daughter, Jennifer Miller Paci. “We always felt so loved, and because we felt so loved, we were able to share her with so many people.”

Shirley and Norm both attended the University of Kansas. They reconnected after they each ended up in Chicago upon graduation — Norm working for General Electric and Shirley earning a master’s at Northwestern University.

After their September 1951 wedding, they headed west so Norm could work at Hanford.

Shirley became involved in causes close to her heart.

That meant, for example, fighting for civil rights in the ‘60s.

“She would bring me and my brothers, as well as my father, on civil rights marches through Pasco, when things were very ugly. Epithets were thrown,” Jennifer recalled. “I remember her telling us, ‘Don’t react. They’re full of hate and we’re here to make a point that we should treat all people equally.’”

Shirley also worked to stop racial discrimination in housing, helping African American families rent when landlords were turning them away. She was instrumental in Richland’s first fair housing ordinance.

She fought for farm workers, too, becoming a registrar and helping the laborers sign up to vote so they’d have greater power to change working conditions. There were times she was chased off farms and threatened, but she continued.

“She showed a lot of courage in doing those things,” Andy Miller said.

When she saw a need, she jumped in, her family said.

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Shirley Miller, center, with Muriel Templeton, left, and Sheila Sullivan, co-founders of what’s now Support, Advocacy & Resource Center. Courtesy of the Miller family

In the 1970s, she co-founded a group dedicated to helping women navigate the aftermath of sexual assault.

It was called Benton County Rape Relief, and it was the first local organization of its kind.

It’s since evolved into the Support, Advocacy & Resource Center, or SARC, helping victims of sexual assault, human trafficking and other crimes. It marked its 40th anniversary last year.

“We all owe a great debt of gratitude” to Shirley and the two other founders, Sheila Sullivan and Muriel Templeton, said JoDee Garretson, SARC’s executive director.

“Talking about rape culture wasn’t done then. It took so much courage and tenacity,” Garretson said. “We all need to be really grateful, because it’s not only survivors of sexual violence they helped, but oppression in general. They helped open the community’s eyes, to lay a foundation and a groundwork.”

Shirley also was active in politics, serving as a delegate at the 1976 Democratic National Convention.

And she opened a bookstore with several friends in Richland’s Uptown Shopping Center.

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Shirley Miller, right, with co-owner Phyllis Bowersock in front of The Book Place in Richland. Courtesy of the Miller family

For nearly 30 years, The Book Place was a haven for book lovers and knowledge seekers.

It stocked a wide range of tomes. A December 1990 story in the Herald noted the shop had a collection of books on the history and politics of the Middle East, following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait earlier that year.

It also had of lighter fare. “The store also reflects our own interests,” Shirley told the paper at the time. “You can usually tell the ages of our grandkids by the books we have.”

Along with Andy and Jennifer, Shirley’s survivors include her son Stanley, plus five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Norm died in 2012.

The family plans a memorial service at 2 p.m. Oct. 27 at Events at Sunset in Richland.

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Shirley Miller with family members at a march against family separation. Courtesy of the Miller family

Andy Miller said his mother was a model of balancing love of family and commitment to the community.

“There are a lot of people who are very good at changing the world, but it comes at the expense of their families. Mom was a huge advocate for social justice, but at the same time she was a wonderful wife, mom and grandmother. She was always there for us,” he said.

Jennifer added that Shirley lived life fully, “enjoying every dimension of it.”

“She was the kind of person we need a lot more of — if they see a problem, they get involved and try to fix it,” Jennifer said. “I know what my mom would want us to do. Yes, mourn her. But also figure out what we can do to make this world a better place. That would be the honor she would want.”

Sara Schilling: 509-582-1529