Nancy Miller: Celebrating Her Life

Nancy Miller's Service

More than 250 friends, colleagues and readers gathered at the Ethical Society to celebrate the life of journalist Nancy Miller.  It was a remarkable event full of the humor and grace that Nancy shared with with us over decades of service at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. You can listen to the service by clicking the link above.(Be patient. It make take a bit of time for this one hour service to load depending on your internet connection.) Following are other Nancy links and eulogies from best friend Diann Sutherlin Smith and colleagues Amy Bertrand and Aisha Sultan.

 

Memorial tributes

Bill McClellan's column

Excerpts from Nancy's columns

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My Best Friend Nancy

A Remembrance by Diann Sutherlin Smith

I can barely remember a time before Nancy. How do I begin to sum up a 46-year-old friendship that has been one of the defining relationships of my life? The task is daunting. And I have no illusions that I can capture the essence of it. I’ll simply begin at the beginning.

It was the first day at Girl Scout Camp. I found myself seated Indian-style under the loblolly pines with a bevy of other pre-pubescent girls with sack lunches. A serious-looking girl with a tight perm, cat-eye glasses and blindingly white tennis shoes was seated next to me. I marveled as she daintily removed the contents of her brown bag and arranged them neatly on the paper napkin draped over her crisp gingham shorts. When I inquired what she’d brought to eat, she replied proudly, “My culinary masterpiece.” The “masterpiece” was peanut butter, mayonnaise and mustard smashed between two gummy slices of white bread. She accepted the Twinkie I offered as a chaser. Nancy’s interest in fine food was clearly formed at an early age. And from that serendipitous meeting, Nancy and I became friends -- our unlikely friendship bound by high fructose corn syrup, gluten and guar gum.

I say “unlikely” friendship because we were very different in so many ways. Almost half a century later we still puzzled over how we ended up best friends. I actually enjoyed lashing saplings into make-shift latrines. That Nancy was in the piney woods at all was a wonder. Nancy was always the Duchess of Decorum. I tended toward rabble-rousing. I was a dog person. Nancy hailed from a long line of cat people. I was in constant motion. Nancy? -- not so much. Nancy ironed things. Me? Not so much. I was as impulsive as she was compulsive. Nancy prided herself on her stoicism. My emotions were as transparent as a skin on a minnow. We were like oil and water. Or maybe it was more like oil and vinegar that rendered a piquant vinaigrette. Yeah, Nancy would like that food simile. Whatever the strange alchemy, we bonded.

As teenagers we had sleep-overs and stayed up nights in our baby doll pajamas, rolling our hair on brush rollers impaled with pink plastic picks and painting our toenails with Revlon’s “Blasé Apricot.” We fretted over the prospect of being captured on hidden camera and having our visible panty lines immortalized as a “Glamour Don’t.”

We shared an appreciation of the absurd and quirky. We devoured Flannery O’Connor. Nancy and I were Southern to the bone. Flannery’s people were our people. But we also dreamed of moving to NY and writing plays. In summer theater one year Nancy wrote a one-woman play about a psychotic little girl named “Louisa” and I performed it. Nancy insisted it was type-casting.

In high school we spent endless hours circling the Dairy Queen and swilling vanilla cokes. But I learned early on I had to give Nancy at least an hour lead time so she could do her hair and makeup before we headed out. That never changed.

It was around that time Nancy began honing her list-making skills. At sixteen we made lists of the names of our future children. She was partial to Jason and Madeline. In college she kept elaborate lists of her wardrobe coordinates so she wouldn’t wear the oatmeal popcorn knit sweater and the cranberry plaid skirt twice in succession. She was reputed to have made lists of her lists.

At the University of Arkansas we subsisted on instant Maxwell House and Honey Buns sharing a small cinderblock dorm room with the ambiance of a POW camp. As usual, I flung my clothes over every available surface with Nancy gently nagging me all the while to make my bed and take out the trash lest we get in trouble and have MY insubordination end up on HER permanent record. Later that semester I gave her a Buster Brown haircut that provoked a major hissy fit.

We bought our first pack of cigarettes that year so we could learn how to smoke like the cool kids. We sauntered up to the counter at the newsstand on Fayetteville’s Dickson Street and attempted to look casual. We asked the surly proprietor for a Cosmo and a pack of unfiltered Camels. Then Nancy plopped a bottle of Bovine Liver Tablets on the counter for good measure. To this day, I have no idea what that was about. Nancy was nervous as a cat that someone would see us buying cigarettes and report our shenanigans to our parents back in El Dorado. Maybe she thought the Bovine Liver Tablets would divert the attention of any nosy bystanders.

In the summers we’d pack pimento cheese sandwiches and Dr. Peppers into a john boat and paddle out from Crabapple Point, tie up to a stump, slather ourselves with baby oil and iodine and baste for hours, alternately reading, talking and splashing in the fishy-smelling water to cool down. Nancy and I were always our happiest around the water.

The truth is my life has been so intertwined with Nancy’s that it’s impossible to tease them apart. She always just been there through the extraordinary times and the mundane. Nancy was not only my present, she was the unbroken link to my past. We shared the key to so much of my personal history.

Nancy and her boyfriend Wayne were the sole witnesses when my husband Craig and I married in 1970. Craig and I were the only attendees when she and Wayne married a year later. Nancy has been “Aunt Nancy” to our three children. They were in grade school before they figured out that Nancy wasn’t a blood relative. But it didn’t matter. She was our family and they adored her. Nancy was there for holidays and vacations and for everything in between.

Nancy was always been the first person I called with good news or bad. Or just silly stuff that I knew only Nancy would appreciate or remember. I just had to let her know the “Day’n’ Nite” store in Sheridan was running a $1.49 corndog and cappuccino special.

Everyone who knew Nancy or read her column realized that she was witty and kind and self-effacing. That she was unfailingly polite. She was generous. She loved and appreciated the people in her life. Nancy was a hard worker and as conscientious as they come. There was never a dangling participle that could slither past her. Nancy was old-school in all the good ways. She sent thank you notes. Lovely, personal notes. She cared about getting things right – not just punctuation. But in life. Nancy paid attention.

 

But here are a few things about Nancy you might not know:

She was fond of ordering eggs benedict -- without the eggs.

She was possibly the only member of our generation who never really liked The Beatles. But she loved James Brown.

She was a world class sleeper.

Although an adventurous gourmand, she never tried sushi. She said it looked too much like bait.

Nancy loved a Conga line.

Nancy collected condiments. “Why on god’s green earth do you need three jars of jalapeno, pineapple, cilantro chutney?” I asked her. “Well,” she drawled, “you just never know.”

Once in college Nancy became a Woodman of the World representative and sold insurance. Apparently, there was no latrine-building involved.

Nancy could ride an exercise bike –veeerrrryy slowly -- while simultaneously reading the paper, drinking coffee AND making her grocery list.

Nancy loved her “beauty baths” as she called them. The more bubbles the better.

Nancy once adopted a small mongrel dog named Leonard who could fetch rocks. Big rocks. From the bottom of Beaver Lake.

Nancy always fretted over propriety. She feared creating a scene. Making a spectacle of herself. And yet she was invariably the one who’d walk out of the women’s room trailing three feet of toilet paper on her sling-back pump. Like she did last summer when we attended the Dick Clark Bandstand show in Branson. But the faux pas was totally obscured by the huge hug and kiss she got from Chris Montez in the malt shop after the show. She was as giddy as a school girl and didn’t wash her cheek for a week.

My daughter Lindsey always said that Nanna was the best gift–giver ever. Nancy put as much care into choosing just the right gift as she did in finding just the right word when she wrote. If you got a gift from Nancy it was never some last minute dash to Walgreens to pick up a Chia Pet and a six-pack of mandarin orange slices on sale.

One of her best gifts was sharing her St. Louis friends with me and my family. Bev and Joy, Ginger and Steve, Mike and Marie and, of course, her beloved Peter. They are now my friends, too.

Nancy possessed an air invulnerability. She took great pride in never taking a sick day. She’d always been amazingly hearty. So when she wound up in the hospital three years ago sick as a dog due to a “pesky pancreas” she was totally taken by surprise. Once the crisis had passed and we’d gotten her back home she confided that her doctor -- “Doctor Cutie Pie” as we liked to call him -- had informed her that martinis were off limits and she could only have an occasional glass of wine. Nancy’d asked him point blank if he was talking about a real glass of wine or one of those piddly little glasses they pour in restaurants. Not that it mattered because she was so hard-headed I knew she wasn’t going to pay a lick of attention to him. Today, I’m glad that the last time we went out she ordered a dirty Beefeater martini straight up veerrry dry with two blue-cheese olives.

Nancy and I laughed about what crazy old ladies we’d be. Spending our dotage in matching ghastly floral housedresses with the snaps down the front and the huge patch pockets retelling our stories and arguing over the fine points of how things really happened.

But we weren’t ready for the rocking chairs and tacky shift dresses just yet. We had plans for adventures yet to come. The Big Cedar trip with the gal pals was coming up at the end of February. The yearly trip to the races at Oaklawn with Nancy and Pete in March. And there were the Galapagos Islands we longed to visit. We had time now that we were all zooming in on retirement. We’d squeeze it all in.

Last Wednesday I got a birthday card from Nancy. She’d never forgotten my birthday. Not once. It was classic Nancy. On the front of the card two sassy broads in Technicolor cocktail dresses slurping spaghetti in tandem from a bowl. Inside, the card’s sentiment read, OUR FRIENDSHIP FEEDS MY SOUL. HAPPY BIRTHDAY.

And then in Nancy’s small chaotic script she wrote the following:

“It seems preposterous to be writing a 60th birthday note to my best friend, but here it is after 46 years of friendship. And speaking of friendship, you take the cake (it’s still in my freezer—the one you left.) You’ve always been there for me and my family. You are, after all, one of us. For better or worse. With much love and best wishes for many more good times. Nanna.”

I emailed back: “The feeling is mutual. If friends are the family you choose then I chose very well. The same can not be said of all my choices – like that godawful hot pink crocheted mini-skirt I chose to get married in. See you soon. Love you, Dudder.”

I know now she never opened that email. But she knew how I felt about her. She was, after all, my best friend. Words weren’t really necessary between us. But I will always be grateful that she said them anyway.



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Amy Bertrand:

I'm up here for one reason: Nancy would have wanted me to be. I can't tell you how many times Nancy encouraged me to step outside my comfort zone, to do something that would make me a better person. She was like the mom who gives you a kiss on the head, then shoves you out the door, telling you she knows you can do anything.

That's what my relationship was like with Nancy. She was constantly doing everything she could to make me a better person and journalist. That's just who she was. She wanted to bring out the best in everyone. That's why she was such an amazing mentor to many people. She truly cared, about everyone.

This past week has been really rough for all of us. But I've loved sharing Nancy stories with everyone, from Mandy's stories of the reporter with the nose ring to Barry Gilbert telling about the music Nancy loved.

Here's my Nancy story: One day, shortly after we launched the Health & Fitness section. Nancy came over to my desk to talk about my story. In it, I had tried to describe a squat. Nancy thought it needed some work, so we got up -- Nancy in her long black skirt  -- and started doing squats trying to figure out the best way to describe it. I kept telling Nancy she need to get down lower. She kept telling me she didn't go any lower. Well, then she fell. To the ground. And then I did, too, laughing. It was late; we were a little loopy, just sitting there on the floor laughing. I think that story describes Nancy. She'd do anything for accuracy, and she loved a good laugh.

The other day Pam Maples came up to my desk and said Nancy raised me. As I thought about it, I realized that couldn't be more true. She taught me everything I know about being a section editor and everything I know about being a writer.

And even when she retired, she kept teaching me. I took over for her as Lifestyle editor, and naturally I had a ton of questions. I'd probably call her once a week, asking "what do you think of this?" "have you done this already?" And then we'd end our conversation with Nancy asking, "so what's the gossip around there?"

It's hard to imagine that I'm not going to be able to pick up the phone to get her advice anymore. But the truth is, I probably don't need it. I know what Nancy would say. Nancy demanded excellence in accuracy, honesty and quality. So anytime I have any question I just have to listen to the Nancy inside my head. She's like my conscience. She's taught me so well,I know what to do. Nancy has had such a profound effect on all of our lives. She doesn't just live on in our heads, she lives on in our hearts.

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Aisha Sultan:

Twelve years ago, Nancy Miller sent me on my first solo assignment for the Post-Dispatch. I was an intern and she was working the city desk that Sunday. The machinists had ended their strike at Boeing, and the story was going to run on the front page the next day. If Nancy was nervous about having an inexperienced intern covering a Dick Gephardt press conference or running around the Boeing plant, she didn't show it. The confidence she had in my abilities boosted my confidence. She expected excellence, and she made me believe I could deliver it.
 
When I returned, I did the typical 'notebook dump' new reporters are prone to do. When she saw the first draft, it was probably way too long and pretty raw. Nancy didn't blink an eye. She asked me to sit next to her as she went through it line by line. She never became impatient or made me feel inadequate. We spent a long time working together on that first story. At the end, she praised me for a doing such a good job. That was typical Nancy. She did the work and gave me the credit. I spent the rest of my internship learning from her.
 
It was a blessing for me to work with a such a kind and talented editor so early in my career. It's a rare combination to encounter in this field. Throughout the years, I admired Nancy's grace under pressure, her positive attitude and her work ethic. Last year, when I was thinking about moving from news to her department, I sought her advice. She listened carefully to my ideas. And, then she would ask tough questions, prefaced by, "I"m just being the devil's advocate." She encouraged me and made me think more clearly about my plans.
 
The best editors become sort of like surrogate parents to their reporters. They teach you, guide you and help you grow as a reporter and writer. Nancy naturally did this for every new reporter who came her way. She taught by example.
 
On the occasions when I may write a graceful sentence or do a small act of kindness for a colleague, that is Nancy's legacy. 
 

 



 
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