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Shirley Fout Miller

August 25, 2012|By JANET HEIM | janeth@herald-mail.com
  • Shirley Fout Miller was known for her impeccable style. She is wearing a hat purchased in London as a gift for her.
Submitted photo

Shirley Fout Miller was a walking medical miracle.

She contracted tuberculosis at age 12 from her mother, about seven years after Shirley’s younger sister and only sibling, Joan, died of diphtheria at age 5 in 1931.

Shirley was not expected to live more than a few months. She spent the next 11 years recovering, in and out of the Maryland State Sanatorium near Sabillasville, Md.

It was while battling TB that she developed her “incredible faith,” said daughter Holly Miller, who lives near Philadelphia.

Later in life, Shirley survived two bouts with breast cancer and a recurrence of TB, among other things.

“She’s been cheating death for 75 years,” Holly said.

Her mother was a voracious reader, and one of her favorite authors was Edith Wharton, Holly said.

“She was living in the gilded age. She wanted to live in the kind of society of Edith Wharton and Jane Eyre,” said Milton Ezrati, Holly’s longtime significant other.

When she was ill, she used her confinement as an opportunity to develop her artistic side. Unable to attend school, Shirley completed a correspondence course and earned her certificate from the New York School of Interior Design.

After she recovered, Shirley studied with two prominent artists in Washington, D.C. Most of her work is in private collections, but some of her pen and ink and watercolor artwork have been published — in the St. John’s Lutheran Church cookbook, two Washington County historical calendars and the calendar of Williamsburg, Va. She also did fashion drawings for ads for local businesses, including Lena Darner.

Shirley’s last public appearance was in May at a showing of her artwork at the Washington County Arts Council.

“She taught me how to draw. That’s a big part of my life,” said granddaughter Kerry Gibbons, a costume designer in New York.

Born on Thanksgiving Day in 1925 in Frederick, Md., Shirley went on to live a long life, with a passion for style, entertaining and Chardonnay.

“She had such a zest for life. It came from the sanatorium, being a bystander in life for more than a decade. She had to figure how to use this life that she didn’t expect to have,” said Barrick Miller of Boulder Creek, Calif., the oldest of the Millers’ three children. 

An invitation to the Millers’ home meant a beautiful table set with china, silver, flowers and handpainted placecards.

“My mother was the queen of entertaining,” Holly said. “She absolutely adored it.”

Grandson James Gibbons said there were many things his grandmother loved, but none more than her husband of 61 years, Richard “Dick” Miller.

“She was delighted to see him come through the door,” said James, a prosecutor in Philadelphia.

“They had this truly lasting love affair,” Holly said.

Shirley met Dick while both were students at Hagerstown Business College.

Their first date was on New Year’s Day 1951. They were married on March 30 of that same year.

The couple had two sons, Barrick and Blair, a daughter and six grandchildren.

Both sons graduated from St. James School, which then was an all-boys school. Holly graduated from Stuart Hall School in Staunton, Va.

It was while sketching drawings of St. James School in 1968 for the Washington County calendars that Shirley fell in love with the school and became an avid supporter.

Dick traveled during his career as a salesman. He worked for Jamison Door Co. in Hagerstown, and there were moves with other companies to Virginia, the Chicago area, Old Chatham, N.Y., and Columbus, Ohio.

When Dick got a job in Richmond, Va., he agreed to commute so they could live 50 miles away in Williamsburg, a dream of Shirley’s. She worked as a secretary in the press bureau for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, as well as for the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Collection.

Shirley also worked as a picture editor for Rand McNally in their textbook division in Chicago, and had a long career as a professional artist and interior designer.

The Millers returned to Hagerstown in the 1990s when Dick retired, settling into a home on Oak Hill Avenue that Shirley lovingly decorated.

The couple had been living at Emeritus Assisted Living on the east side of Hagerstown, where Dick still resides.

Before drug therapy was developed for TB, Shirley had an experimental surgery, plombage, Holly said. The insertion of lucite balls, the size of pingpong balls, into a cavity underneath the ribs collapsed the infected lung, allowing it to rest so the TB lesions could heal.

Holly said it was “gruesome” surgery that required Shirley to be awake so she could take breaths in between surgical cuts. Antibiotics eventually replaced this procedure, Holly said.

“My father said at night, you could actually hear the balls banging against each other,” said Holly, who added that chest X-rays on her mother caused quite a stir among the medical staff.

Years later, the surgical scars in Shirley’s back were visible when the family vacationed at the beach. Shirley explained the scars as where her angel wings had been, James said.

In between Shirley’s diagnoses of breast cancer in 2000 and 2005, James was diagnosed with cancer. He was a law student at the University of Virginia, and Shirley came down “and played chauffeur, cook, housekeeper” for him.

“She viewed this as a particular bond, that we both beat cancer,” James said.

Holly’s job took her and her two children to London for two years, while James was 15 and Kerry 13. Shirley was given the assignment to travel in advance of the move with the children to select a school for them, even though Shirley was not known for her navigational skills.

“She couldn’t get her way out of a paper bag,” James said.

Even among the well dressed in London, Shirley drew compliments.

“She was fantastically elegantly dressed, while we were schlubbing along,” James said.

James completed his undergraduate studies at Oxford University and for graduation, received only three tickets. Each of his parents got a ticket, and as he considered which Miller grandparent to give the other ticket to, he knew Shirley was the one who would appreciate the “pomp and circumstance,” as well as the architecture of the Sheldonian Theatre, commissioned by Christopher Wren.

James watched as Dick smoked his pipe outside the theater, chatting with the janitor. Before long, the janitor opened the side door and snuck Dick inside for the graduation ceremony.

“She was prim and proper, very elegant. He was a salesman, a schmoozer,” James said. “Together, they were quite a couple.”

Shirley’s favorite sayings were “My cup runneth over” or “Oh Dick,” her exasperation with her husband reflected in the intonation of the two words.

“She was just an almost unfailingly sweet, unfailingly kind and unfailingly sociable person,” James said. “As far as I can tell, she was universally loved.

“The number of people that came up to us this weekend and said she was a second mom — I lost count.”

Editor’s note: Each Sunday, The Herald-Mail runs “A Life Remembered.” Each story in this continuing series takes a look back — through the eyes of family, friends, co-workers and others — at a member of the community who died recently. Today’s “A Life Remembered” is about Shirley Fout Miller, who died Aug. 16 at the age of 86. Her obituary was published in the Aug. 19 edition of The Herald-Mail.

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