This article was published in the March April 2019 issue of our paper neighborhood newsletter. For even more reminiscences on the illustrious Shelley,
Who Was Shelley Miller?
Shelley Miller. It’s a name tossed around from time to time. Her face is on the New York School kid mural on the Key Press building at 9th and New Jersey — lady with big eyes and long hair and the power to levitate over the neighborhood. Her name is on a plaque in the Community Resource room at New York Elementary, and used to hang outside the school teacher’s lounge and kitchen. Recently, Phil posted a happy birthday to her on the ELNA facebook page, recalling her enthusiasm for fireworks. We hear there is even a pair of perfectly age-patinaed size nine cowboy boots, formerly Shelley’s, still being passed around from friend to friend so loved ones can walk a mile in her shoes. We know her name, but who was she?
Shelley Miller died on March 1st, 1994, at the age of 40, after a battle with brain cancer. In honor and celebration of her life, friends and family produced a booklet, published by the University of Kansas Libraries, to preserve some of the stories and words shared at Shelley’s memorial. This booklet, Shelley Miller: A Celebration of Her Life is a great resource for putting a person to the name. The majority of quotes and excerpts reproduced here are lifted from that book. If you’d like to read the booklet in its entirety, ask KT. She’s got a few copies to loan.
Shelly was born in Illinois on January 17th, 1954. Her family moved to Lawrence, and she attended Lawrence public schools, graduating from KU with a degree in Spanish and Social Welfare, and got a Master of Library Science at UCLA. She traveled much and taught much, and acquired other degrees, later becoming bibliographer and head of the Department for Spain, Portugal, and Latin America at the University of Kansas Libraries. “She went far and wide in her life,” a remembrance in the booklet says, “but East Lawrence was always home. It’s always where she felt most comfortable and felt a kindred spirit.”
Shelley gave much of her time to East Lawrence, serving as ELNA (then ELIA) president, vice-president, newsletter editor, coordinator, liaison with the City Commission and Planning Commission and CDAC. She was a founding member of the Lawrence Association of Neighborhoods and volunteered at New York Elementary, even though she wasn’t a parent or have a kid there. She just cared a lot about our neighborhood school. Shelley is responsible for starting the annual MLK Chili Feed with teachers and neighbors, and always prepared the vegetarian chili. After her death, Shelley’s foundation donated funds to build the Shelley Miller Memorial Kitchen at New York School, so that the Chili Feed might always have a kitchen to work in. The pencil drawing of Shelley displayed on the kitchen plaque (now in the Community Room just inside the school entrance) was lovingly hand drawn by a friends mother. (Shelley’s plaque and picture, in honor of her service, are at KU’s ECM kitchen too!) The trash racks — wooden structures to hold trash cans to keep them from blowing down the alleys — you can still see behind some East Lawrence homes were organized by Shelley Miller. Shelley is also the origin of the neighborhood free sale, starting it in her yard in the eighties.
One favorite neighborhood story about Shelley Miller is that people called her the “Ever Vigilant Neighborhood Bitch”. The designation began, allegedly, after a City Commission meeting. Someone referred to Shelley as the Neighborhood Bitch because of her activism. Her response was to have t-shirts made up that said “Ever Vigilante Neighborhood Bitch”. She and others wore them to future meetings. Another story, also alleged, says that Shelley used to run out into Pennsylvania Street to stop trucks, sometimes in her bathrobe. Trucks were then using Pennsylvania St to swing around and access industry businesses that were on Delaware St and east. Truck Route ordinances prohibiting trucks on Pennsylvania were not being enforced, so Shelley would go out there and block the trucks (with herself) and give them a lesson in where they should and should not be driving through residential areas. Go Shelley!
Shelley Miller was a lover of well-loved things and earthiness, being described as a “disastrous housekeeper” in the memorial booklet. Phil says she loved fireworks and was a self-proclaimed Deadhead. The Fourth of July was her favorite, and she was known to host parties at her home at 936 Pennsylvania St. She also had bonfires, with fireworks, on the solstice. Shelley lived in Pennsylvania house for about 15 years, and at 14th and Mass before that, and so living in East Lawrence most of her adult life. The painting of Shelley on the school mural is modeled after her 1972 LHS senior picture.
Shelley’s eulogy says, she “lived for her friends, her neighbors, her political comrades, her fellow librarians, her family, and the downtrodden of society. Service…was the hallmark of her life.” “She was loved by her friends and respected by her adversaries,” another person said. Shelley Miller died twenty five years ago this month, but her generosity and fierce love for her neighborhood lives on here in East Lawrence today.
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