Better With Age Profile: Making a mark

Better With Age Profile: Making a mark
Pat Miller poses with former City Councilor Paul Smedberg and former Mayor Kerry Donley after receiving a civic award (photo Louise Krafft)

By Kassidy McDonald

There are always a few special people in a community who do the most to help others. Pat Miller is one of those people. Her name is one that you have likely heard, or maybe you’ve driven by the Pat Miller Neighborhood Square in Del Ray. If her name sounds familiar, you probably know all about her contributions to the arts in this city, but what you may not know is that she does much more to help Alexandrians, specifically the women of Alexandria.

From the Midwest

Miller grew up in Iowa on a farm that mainly harvested grain, corn and wheat. Her family also owned pigs and goats.

She was the middle child of five siblings. As a child, Miller was always surrounded by children of all different ages to play with, which she said helped her further down the line in life.

Due to the small size of her Ralston, Iowa town, Miller constantly interacted with children who were in lower and higher grades. There were only seven children in her class, with three to four grades in one classroom. Miller said she loved growing up there, and that she and her siblings always had a blast.

Miller said that her mother, who ran a small cafe in their town, was also a significant influence.

“[My mom] was one of those people that would not take no for an answer. She knew everybody in town and helped everybody when they needed it. And she instilled that in me. And I thank the Good Lord she did. Because that, to me, is one of the most important things,” Miller said.

After high school, Miller went on to attend the University of Northern Iowa, where she majored in mathematics.

“I love math. I just love it. It’s just so precise. And sometimes, you kind of go, why is it this way? Why is two and two, four? Why can’t it be three? But it is a very precise thing. And it’s fun to play with, at least I think so,” Miller said. “And I did want to go into teaching, but then I realized that wasn’t where I belong.”

Right after graduation, Miller worked as a waitress. A friend of hers worked for a local TV and radio station, so Miller fell into a job there. That job, she said, led her to a career in politics. She worked for the governor of Iowa on two of his campaigns and then worked for his office.

Miller then managed various campaigns in Iowa and other parts of the Midwest. Those experiences earned her a job at Bailey, Deardourff & Associates, a political media firm, and brought Miller and her husband to Washington, D.C., according to her Alexandria Living Legends induction profile.

Once in D.C., Miller and her husband divorced and she immediately moved to Alex- andria, where her friend, Elise Reeder, resided.

“I moved over to Alexandria, because a friend of mine lived here. She said, ‘This is a place where you need to be.’ Bammo, she was so right. It turns out that it was home,” Miller said.

Miller’s mom instilled in her a deep desire to help people, and from then on she knew she wanted to help the people of Alexandria.

The birth of Art on the Avenue

When Miller arrived in 1995, the city was holding a block party in Del Ray that Miller said “fizzled.”

Miller was inspired by a street art fair she attended in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which was held along the waterfront. Fairgoers really enjoyed themselves, and Miller believed that with the help of others, she could pull off something similar in Del Ray.

The first year they decided to put on Art on the Avenue, Miller said they originally only had 13 artists sign up for the fair.

“But then before we opened, we wound up pushing 70 [artists]. And so yeah, within a week, we got like, 60. We just pushed and pushed and pushed and got it. And it’s just been successful ever since,” Miller said.

Today, fairgoers are usually greeted by 300-plus artists. This upcoming October will be the 27th year the festival will be held in Del Ray. According to the festival’s website, 50,000 visitors enjoy the fair each year and shop for local art, try different food vendors and listen to musicians.

The multicultural art festival is home to jewelers, silversmiths, beaders, wood-workers, pottery makers, soap crafters, glass makers, painters, sculptors and fabric artists. There are musicians who play Irish, folk, rock-n-roll and country music. Food vendors serve hot dogs, BBQ, Indian, Mexican, pizza, crab cakes, chocolate bananas and even homemade cider donuts, according to the website.

Kids’ activities have also been a big part of the festival; stuffing your own scarecrow, painting a pumpkin, lotus flower designing and weaving screen art are some of the kid- friendly activities listed on the site.

On the 25th anniversary of Art on the Avenue, the city dedicated Pat Miller Neighborhood Square to thank Miller and recognize her accomplishments.

Pat Miller Neighborhood Square is located in the heart of Del Ray at the intersection of Mount Vernon and Oxford Avenues. The square hosts the Del Ray Christmas Tree during the holidays, as well as a weekly farmers’ market.

Art on the Avenue has been featured on WETA Neighborhoods and in the Washington Post and Washingtonian magazine. It has played an integral role in transforming Del Ray into what it is today.

Miller has also volunteered on the Alexandria Commission for the Arts, which she has chaired since 2006, due to her passion for encouraging art in the city.

Art on the Avenue is one of Miller’s most successful accomplishments in the city, but her ways of helping the community don’t stop at the arts.

Helping women

When asked to name her most important accomplishment, Miller was hesitant to give an answer because she loves helping people.

Miller helped found a nonprofit called Alexandria Celebrates Women, which according to its website has the mission of acknowledging the history of the city’s heroines while celebrating the empowerment of the city’s modern women.

The nonprofit has held walking tours in the city to showcase historic places and has organized a pinwheel garden in the month of May to raise awareness for child abuse. Additionally, Miller, along with Gayle Converse, contribute a monthly column to the Alexandria Times cronicalling the accomplishments of women in the Port City.

“I think that the one thing that really hits my heart is women that are mistreated,” Miller said. Giving them a voice as well as making their opportunities as equal as she can is an apparent source of inspiration for Miller.

Miller helped plan a health fair to aid Alexandria women on Oct. 8, which will be held during National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. She is working on the fair alongside several other organizations, including Nueva Vida, the National Breast Cancer Foundation and the Alexandria Health Department.

The fair’s main purpose is to provide the opportunity for uninsured women to get mammograms. Miller is hoping with the help of the other organizations that it will be big enough to stretch into other areas of healthcare, like having the COVID-19 vaccine available.

Miller had previously tried to get mobile mammography vans to come to events, but was having trouble finding them. This problem led her to the idea of holding a health fair.

“Trying to find a van has been almost impossible. So what we said was, you know, well, we’ll work through the process. So it’s a pretty involved process, because mammograms, you know, identifying the women that need them, and then women that need follow up and stuff like that. How do they pay for it? I mean, that’s the critical, critical thing,” Miller said.

Miller also said it is important for women who don’t have health insurance and may not have access to these services to be able to see whether or not they have problems, or if problems could occur down the line.

“What we’re trying to do by doing the health fair is to find those women that have not gotten into the process. So that’s what we’re hopeful to do.”

Miller said that if a woman comes to the fair and figures out she has a blood problem, for example, there will be a professional there that can speak with her and help her decide what is best for her moving forward.

Oftentimes, she said, women rarely think about themselves. “We find that women, they want their kids and their husband to be taken care of. They don’t look at themselves. And so that’s what we’re trying to do is to say, ‘Hey, look at yourself.’ Come on. You know, put yourself first for [a] change.”

City commitment

Through Art on the Avenue and Alexandria Celebrates Women, Miller has made a sizable impact on the City of Alexandria.

The love she has for Alexandria is apparent through all of her work, as she continues to strive to make the city a better place.

Miller said that what makes Alexandria so special to her is the people.

“The people are amazing. And, you know, they help their government to work and they make things happen. To me, that is absolutely the best thing,” Miller said.

City residents also motivate her to do what she does.

“Everybody out there has some wonderful ideas, and they don’t know how to implement,” she said. “And so if I can help somebody do something that they want to do, to me, that’s golden. That’s what it’s all about.”