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Hoosier, 97, Keeps Fighting for the Rights of the Elderly

Times Staff Writer

The headlines on the front page of the May 2 Indianapolis Star read: “Go-Go Dancers, Retirees Tango Over Bar License.”

Martin H. Miller, a lively 97-year-old, spoke for the retirees. Voluptuous stripper Crystal Nichols, 21, countered for the dancers.

“Retirees who patronize a pharmacy across from the go-go club fear for their safety from unruly customers,” Miller contended.

To which Nichols said that she supported her daughter by dancing, and would lose her sole source of income if the bar were closed.

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“You’re not a very good example for your child,” Miller later admonished.

For Martin Miller, a man known locally as “America’s oldest active full-time lobbyist,” it was another day on the job.

Hoosiers weren’t surprised that a man Miller’s age showed up at that meeting. He testifies at hearings and meetings of the Legislature, and various boards and commissions each week throughout the year, representing the interest of senior citizens.

Miller can count on his fingers the number of days he has failed to attend the Indiana General Assembly since 1957, when he volunteered to become his home state’s No. 1 advocate for the elderly.

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“I was a paid lobbyist at the Indiana Legislature for the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen from 1926 until my retirement at age 65 in 1957,” Miller explained. “Since then, my role has been advocate for seniors. I’m still a lobbyist, but I don’t get paid. I’m always called a lobbyist in the papers, on radio and television, but my correct title is advocate.”

He frequently stops by Gov. Evan Bayh’s office in the Capitol to keep the governor abreast of matters pertaining to older citizens. It’s a case of the nation’s oldest meeting with the youngest.

“Martin has been a fixture around the statehouse since long before I was born,” said Bayh, the son of former U.S. Sen. Birch Bayh, and, at 33, America’s youngest governor. “He’s Indiana’s Grand Old Man, loved and respected by everyone in the state.”

As Indiana’s foremost advocate for older Americans, Miller is an active member of many organizations and committees. He led the effort to achieve the establishment of the Indiana Commission on Aging and the Aged in the 1950s, an agency that became a model for the Older Americans Act of 1965.

He has fostered bills not only through the Indiana Legislature, but through Congress as well. He was the first president of Older Hoosiers Inc. and continues as a member of that group’s board of directors. He’s a member of the Indiana Advisory Council on Aging, a member of the Technical Review Committee of the Aging network, and helps run Indiana’s nutritional program for the elderly.

“Older people have to get out and fight for their rights. We can’t just sit back and do nothing,” Miller insists. “We have to keep fighting. It’s the same old story, the wagon wheel that squeaks gets the grease.”

Testifying two years ago in the Legislature on a proposed bill for home care funds for the elderly, one state senator argued: “If this bill passes, people will flock to the nursing homes.” Miller bellowed in response: “Who in hell wants to go into a nursing home?” His caustic comment was the turning point. Two conservative members changed their minds, the motion carried and $1.5 million was appropriated to provide home care for elderly who could not otherwise afford it.

“Sure, I set an example for a lot of people by being active at this late age. It shows you can do what you want to do if you have the will to fight,” Miller maintains. “I might get tired, but I keep going.”

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Maurice Endwright, 75, newspaper columnist and retired editor and publisher of the Ellettsville Journal, said Miller, “hasn’t slowed down. He wears everybody out. He works day and night, not only for older people, that’s his main thrust, but for the best interests of the state and all its citizens. He has unbelievable drive and tremendous recall. He is always refreshing and inspirational.”

In 1976, Miller was awarded the annual Eugene V. Debs Award, joining the ranks of labor leader John L. Lewis, Socialist Party presidential candidate Norman Thomas, Walter Reuther, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Jesse Jackson, Pete Seeger and Ed Asner.

The award cited Miller for being “a champion and defender of labor, negotiator and persuader extraordinary, crusader for rights of mankind and for emulating his close friend and idol, Eugene V. Debs.”

Miller is the last surviving close associate of Debs, president of the American Railway Union, a founder of the Socialist Party of America, and five times candidate for U.S. President on the Socialist Party ticket.

Debs was from Terre Haute, Ind. He had many friends in Clay City, Ind., Miller’s hometown. “I first met Eugene V. Debs when I was an 8-year-old newsboy in 1900. I sold Gene Debs a newspaper. He took an interest in me, gave me books to read. We became lifelong close friends,” Miller recalled.

Like Debs, he became a Socialist. He campaigned for Debs on soap boxes and from stepladders when Debs ran for Congress and for President.

“Eugene Debs had a great influence on my life. I named my son after him, Eugene Victor Miller. (Miller’s son was killed in a Flying Fortress bombing raid over Germany during World War II.) I saw Debs off when he left Terre Haute to go to prison in December, 1919, and I was there to welcome him home in December, 1921, after he was pardoned by President Harding.”

Debs served two years in federal prisons for violation of the 1917 Espionage Act for an anti-war speech he delivered in 1918.

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A month before Debs died in October, 1926, he suggested Miller accept the role as lobbyist at the Indiana Legislature for the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen. Miller had been a railroad brakeman, railroad fireman and a freight train conductor. He was on hand with a small group of people to witness the cremation of Debs’ body.

Debs’ home in Terre Haute has been designated a National Historic Landmark by the National Park Service. Dr. Charles King, 59, Indiana State University sociology professor and secretary-treasurer of the Eugene V. Debs Foundation, owner of the Debs home, said: “Martin Miller exemplifies the social justice effort for which Eugene Debs lived and struggled.”

Miller has been married twice, 38 years to his first wife, Mary Ethel, who died in 1952, and 30 years to his present wife, Lillian, who is 77. He has a daughter, June Van Zee, 70, a grandson and two great-grandchildren.

Asked why he keeps going with the same energy, zest and enthusiasm as someone a third his age, he replies: “It keeps me young at heart and young in mind. And, I get an awful lot of satisfaction staying in the fray.”

His wife said: “Martin doesn’t know the word no. He is on the phone all hours of the day and night when he isn’t at the Capitol or attending this meeting or that meeting. I’m his chauffeur. He wears me out,” she laughed.

As they left the Capitol Building together last week, they passed a plaque beneath a young tulip tree on the statehouse lawn. The plaque reads:

“This tulip tree is a testimony to Indiana’s No. 1 advocate for the elderly, Martin H. Miller, who was born March 29, 1892. Presented April 30, 1982.”


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