The tomatoes in Pam Miller’s new city were small, suspect and unappetizing.
It was 1970. Miller and her husband had moved to Lexington from California for Dr. Ralph Miller’s new job at the University of Kentucky Medical Center. The Millers were accustomed to California’s fresh vegetables and fruits. Pam Miller was puzzled that a city surrounded by lush agricultural land didn’t have a farmers market.
On a dusty spot in front of what eventually became Rupp Arena, Miller and a partner found a location. Through the UK agricultural school, they eventually found farmers. But they ran into red tape: A Fayette County Health Department inspector wouldn’t issue a permit.
“He said there would be rats and insects,” Miller said in a recent interview.
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She went to see the health commissioner and emphasized that fresh fruits and vegetables were important to good health. How could the department block something that promotes healthy eating habits?
The health commissioner reversed the inspector’s decision. In 1972, the Lexington farmers market sold its first tomato. The market was incorporated in 1975. Forty-five years later, it’s a thriving downtown mainstay with several satellite markets.
In 1972, Pam Miller had been in Lexington for only two years. She was two years away from holding her first elected office. Yet she already had changed the way Lexington residents ate, shopped and spent their Saturday mornings.
“I think that’s what people thank me the most for: the farmers market,” said Miller, 78, the first woman to be elected to the Urban County Council and the first woman to be elected mayor of Lexington. “Sometimes I think I’m more popular now than when I was mayor,” she said, laughing.
After 47 years, the Millers will leave Lexington for Lexington, Mass., to a retirement community, so they can be closer to their three adult children and grandchildren. The city will rename the Downtown Arts Center on Main Street in her honor before she and her husband move later this spring. A free public reception is scheduled for May 9 at the center.
Miller spent 25 years at City Hall, and with each climb up the political ladder, she shattered glass ceilings and changed forever what a local politician looked like. She was the first woman to be elected to the newly formed Urban County Council, in 1973. She became vice mayor in 1984 and again in 1990. She was the first woman to serve as mayor, in 1993, when then-Mayor Scotty Baesler stepped down after winning a congressional seat. She was elected mayor twice and shocked many people in 2003 when she announced that she wouldn’t seek a third term and retired from politics.
Miller’s mark on Lexington and Fayette County goes well beyond the four walls of City Hall, those in the arts and education say. A gifted piano player, she has long championed the arts, pushing to save the Kentucky and State theaters after a fire in 1987. She helped start the Lexington Children’s Museum, oversaw the creation of the Downtown Arts Center and raised money for the University of Kentucky Opera program. Miller also pushed for reforms in Kentucky’s education system as a founding member of the nonprofit Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence. She also served on the Council on Post Secondary Education, which oversees higher education in Kentucky, from 2008 to this spring.
“She’s not my hero. She’s my she-ro,” said Everett McCorvey, the longtime director of UK’s opera program. Miller began working with what is now OperaLex, a nonprofit that raises money for UK Opera, shortly after she left public office in 2003.
“She transformed the OperaLex organization,” McCorvey said. “She’s just so good with people. Not only does she know a lot of people, but she understands people. She is able to share her love of music with others. They want to be a part of it. They know of her commitment. She’s invested in the community, and people see that.”
Fred Mills, the longtime director of the Kentucky Theatre on Main Street, said then-Mayor Baesler and Miller stepped up when the Main Street theater burned in 1987. The owners at the time said they would rebuild, but when that didn’t happen, the city helped secure funding to have the theater rebuilt. The Kentucky Theater, the main theater, reopened in 1992. The second one — the State — reopened in 1997, thanks to Miller, who was then mayor, Mills said.
“She did a lot for downtown and the arts,” Mills said. “It was also during her tenure that Heritage Hall at the convention center was expanded.”
Another downtown institution with Miller’s fingerprints on it is the Downtown Arts Center, the building that will soon bear her name. The project started under Baesler, and the original plans called for a cultural complex to be paid for with millions of dollars in state money in what was then known as the Ben Snyder block. But the city’s budget was tight, and the huge complex never materialized.
Miller later negotiated a settlement with then-Gov. Paul Patton to invest $15 million in the center, which includes a theater and a private art gallery. As part of that deal, the city bought the Lyric Theatre. The state then decided to build the two new courthouses — the circuit and district courts — on the site where the cultural complex was to be established.
Miller said her love for music and the arts came from her parents. She grew up in a musical household in Hanover, N.H.,, and took piano lessons from ages 5 to 18. She even considered attending the Juilliard School in New York City. Her most famous music pupil? James Taylor. Miller baby-sat Taylor and his siblings in her teens and taught Taylor to play the ukulele. Taylor and Miller reunited at his 2016 concert at Rupp Arena.
“Music is just extremely important to me,” Miller said. “But it’s not just music; it’s all the performing arts.”
Arts give cities a unique sense of place. Arts also help downtowns, she said.
“Basketball is important, and it’s a big draw,” Miller said. “But music, theater and arts also bring people downtown and reach people that basketball doesn’t.”
Miller, who graduated magna cum laude from Smith College, said her passion for education reform came from watching her three children’s experience in school. Every child in Kentucky should have the same education opportunities that her children did in Lexington, she said.
“I wanted them to have a good education,” she said. “Not all schools are the same. But everybody should have the same type of education that my kids got at Glendover Elementary.”
Cindy Heine, a former Prichard Committee staffer, said Miller’s years in city government were an asset to the nonprofit. Her political know-how and ability to slog through dense education policy were particularly helpful during the group’s early years in the 1980s.
“She was curious and wanted to get all of the facts,” Heine said. “She cared deeply about what she was doing, whether it was improving education or the city.”
Robert King, president of the Council on Post Secondary Education, agreed. Miller served on the council from 2008 to this spring and was chairwoman from 2012 to 2015.
“Pam was a great council member and chairperson,” King said. “She demonstrated her dedication to education at every level and her passion for Kentucky throughout her career. We were so fortunate to have her support and leadership for nearly a decade.”
Miller’s foray into politics started not long after the Millers moved to Lexington. A former writer for Congressional Quarterly in Washington, D.C., she joined the Lexington League of Women Voters soon after moving to Lexington. The group was pushing for the merger of city and county government. She was encouraged to run for a newly created seat in the 4th Council District. She loved her new neighborhood on a quiet street off Nicholasville Road.
“We had a lot of bubbling septic tanks,” Miller said. She won the seat and became the only woman on the first Urban County Council. Miller chalks up her win to an open-minded electorate in her district, an area around UK.
Not everyone was happy to see her run.
“There was a man when I knocked on his door who told me I should be home taking care of my kids,” said Miller, whose children were young at the time of her 1973 run for public office. “I thought, well, I am taking care of my kids.”
There were three black men, one woman and 11 white men on the first Urban County Council.
“It was much more representative of the population as a whole,” Miller said. “Before, it was five white men from Chevy Chase.”
Miller served on the council for 15 years. She was vice mayor from 1984 to1985 and again from 1990 to 1992. When Baesler won a seat in Congress, she became mayor in 1993.
Her first 18 months as mayor were the most grueling and difficult of her career, she said.
The city’s accounts were dwindling. Longstanding lawsuits against the city had to be settled, further draining the city’s coffers. Then, in 1994, a white Lexington police officer shot and killed Tony Sullivan, an unarmed black teenager.
There were multiple investigations. Phil Vogel, the police officer who shot Sullivan, retired in 1995 after a grand jury decided not to indict him in the shooting. But Sullivan’s death ripped open longstanding racial tensions in Lexington. Black people felt not only disenfranchised but angry, hurt and distrustful of city government. It was devastating for Miller, who felt a connection to the city’s black population. As the city’s first woman to be elected to city office, she knew what it felt like to be treated differently, not heard or dismissed.
“It was devastating,” she said.
But out of Sullivan’s death came the birth of a new program: Partners for Youth, which runs employment and other programs directed at the city’s black and underserved minority populations. It’s now in its 22nd year.
She also appointed the city’s first black police chief, Anthany Beatty, and several other black people to high-profile positions in her administration.
In addition to Partners for Youth, Miller said, she’s proud of the purchase of development rights program, which buys conservation easements to protect agricultural land. Since its creation in 2001, it has protected more than 30,000 acres of farmland.
That program was started after a contentious battle over the expansion of the urban service area in 1996, the last time the urban service area, which protects rural land from development, was expanded. Miller said she reluctantly agreed to expand the urban service area so she could get the PDR program approved.
“It took almost three years to get started, and it was a compromise between the preservation community, the builders and a lot of different groups,” Miller said.
Lexington is likely to face another pitched battle this year over the expansion of the urban service boundary. Does Miller have any advice for the city or the council?
“I don’t think I did the best job of it myself, so I’m not going to offer any advice,” Miller said, laughing. “Development verses preservation: It’s an issue that is never going to go away.”
Fourteen years after leaving office, Miller said that after years of false starts, she’s excited to see downtown thriving. When the Millers moved to town in 1970, downtown was a dusty mess, torn up by urban renewal. Their first evening in Lexington, they tried to find a restaurant to get some food. Everything was closed. “It wasn’t that late,” she said, laughing.
Lexington’s biggest mistake?
Those urban renewal projects of the late 1960s and 1970s gutted downtown and took much of it history, she said.
“Other cities were doing the same thing. ... Our downtown was recovering from that for 25 years. It’s finally gotten to the point that people are living there. It’s dynamic. It’s fun. It’s entertaining. People want to be there. But it’s taken a long, long time.”
One of Miller’s great contributions to her adopted hometown was starting a long tradition of female leaders in public office, former Vice Mayor Linda Gorton said. After Miller left office in 2003, the city elected its second female mayor, Teresa Isaac. Five women, including Miller, Isaac and Gorton, have been vice mayor since 1974. The other two women to be elected vice mayor were Isabel Yates, who served under Miller, and Ann Ross, the first woman to be elected vice mayor, serving from 1982 to 1983.
Louisville, the state’s other merged city-county government, has never elected a woman as mayor. Over the past 15 years, only one woman has been president of the Louisville Metro Council government.
Gorton served under four mayors from 1999 to 2015.
Miller “was the first mayor I served under, and she was a role model for me,” Gorton said.
Miller was a savvy politician who never forgot basic math, Gorton said. Miller knew that if she wanted to get something through the 15-member council, she needed eight votes. Miller talked to all the council members, calling them frequently to keep them in the loop or bringing them into her office to talk.
“She was a great communicator,” Gorton said.
Miller’s knowledge of the unglamorous, arcane details of city government — road funding formulas or the size of sewer pipes — was unmatched.
If a council member had a question, Miller knew the answer, Gorton said.
“It was rare if one of her commissioners had to come to the podium to answer a question.”
Miller didn’t let her title as leader of Kentucky’s second-largest city go to her head.
“She took her job very seriously, but she didn’t take herself seriously,” Gorton said. “She was fun and she was funny, but there was steel there.”
Sheila Ferrell, executive director of the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation, urged the council during a meeting in late April to add Miller’s name to the Downtown Arts Center. She was one of several people to ask the council to name the center in honor of Miller.
Miller did a lot for the arts and for downtown, Ferrell said. More importantly, she means a lot to all women in Lexington, she said.
“As a female who serves as the director of a local nonprofit organization, the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation, and as the mother of a 22-year-old daughter who was born and raised in Lexington, ... I cannot go without saying thank you to Pam and to let her know how inspiring she and her pioneering leadership has been to me and my generation of women.”
Naming the center after Miller would “inspire the next generation of women,” Ferrell said.
Not everyone agreed with what Miller did during her quarter-century at City Hall.
But Lexington would be a much different place if Pam and Ralph Miller hadn’t moved here in 1970, McCorvey said.
“That’s why her tenure here has been so amazing,” he said. “She’s worked inside City Hall and outside City Hall and has been such an engaged participant in our community. Imagine if all of us were so engaged. Imagine what our community would look like.”
If you go
What: A celebration to honor former Mayor Pam Miller and Dr. Ralph Miller
When: 5 p.m. reception; 6:30 p.m. program, Tuesday, May 9
Where: Downtown Arts Center, 141 E. Main St.
Complimentary valet parking, free parking in Fayette Circuit and District Court garages