'She Had Incredible Empathy for People': Remembering Holly Miller, 1944-2023 | Paid Post | Life Stories | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

Published November 15, 2023 at 10:00 a.m.

Holly speaking at an event celebrating the construction of the Miller Building at the University of Vermont Medical Center - COURTESY OF UVMMC
  • Courtesy Of UVMMC
  • Holly speaking at an event celebrating the construction of the Miller Building at the University of Vermont Medical Center

The McClure Miller Respite House in Colchester feels like a home away from home. Its fireplace, open kitchen and thoughtfully designed rooms make the 21-bed inpatient hospice facility feel cozy. Its staff and community volunteers — more than 300 of them — provide meals and round-the-clock care, including emotional and spiritual support for residents and their families.

At the end of September, those residents included Respite House namesake Harlaine Dudley "Holly" Miller. Holly died there, in the house she helped build, on September 20, surrounded by her family, including her daughter, Erika Montgomery.

An ER nurse who lives in Montana, Erika has witnessed the end of many lives. "When she passed away, she literally had a smile on her face," Erika said. "I've never seen that in my life. That was really pretty amazing."

Holly experienced dementia in the last few years of her life, but family and friends said they still caught glimpses of her personality shining through. "She died in exactly the way her soul wanted it to happen," Erika said.

Holly was instrumental in advancing hospice and end-of-life care in Vermont. She helped establish the Respite House, the Noyana Singers — a chorus of volunteers that sings to hospice patients — and the Madison-Deane Initiative, which educates medical professionals about caring for patients at the end of their lives.

Hospice was just one of Holly's causes. Alongside her husband, Robert "Bobby" Miller, who died in 2020, Holly nurtured many of Burlington's community institutions. Together, they gave away millions of dollars and countless hours of their time; both Holly and Bobby died in buildings bearing their names.

That's remarkable, given that neither of them grew up with money or graduated from college. The couple donated to projects that improved the lives of vulnerable and marginalized people, never forgetting their roots.

"Holly was very humble, no matter what," said Peg Maffitt, one of her longtime friends. "She never thought she was better than anyone."

Manon O'Connor, another friend of the Millers, recalled the way Holly made others feel seen and heard. "She had incredible empathy for people. She really could put herself in your shoes," she said.

'There wasn't enough to go around'

Holly's empathy grew out of her own experience. Born in Rutland, she moved to Burlington at age 9 and lived with her family in an apartment on lower North Street.

"My mother would hide when the landlord would come, and I would have to answer the door," Holly told Paula Routly for a 2000 story in Seven Days. "My father worked long hours and hard, but there wasn't enough to go around." She told Paula she remembered her mother hocking her wedding ring to buy Christmas presents for the five children.

As a result, Holly started working at a young age to help support her family. She babysat and worked at a pizza parlor and then as a carhop at an A&W. After high school, she became a secretary and later an office manager for University Orthopedics.

In 1974, Holly and her first husband became foster parents to Erika, then a 7-year-old living at St. Joseph's Orphanage; they later adopted her. When the marriage ended, Erika stayed with Holly.

In 1986, Holly married Bobby, a scrappy entrepreneur who founded New England Air Systems and R.E.M. Development. They were a loving couple and deeply devoted to each other; she called him her Buddha.

For the first time in her life, Holly didn't have to work. She turned her focus to contributing to the community instead. Together, she and Bobby would become two of the Burlington area's most generous philanthropists. The Vermont Respite House was Holly's first project.

'Hospice is about quality of life'

  • Courtesy Of UVM Home Health And Hospice
  • Holly Miller

Holly wrote about her developing interest in end-of-life care in her memoir, I'll Show You How. While working in the medical field, she'd noticed that doctors, who worked to prolong life, often struggled to help patients with terminal illnesses prepare for death.

Hospice, on the other hand, treats death as a natural part of life. "Hospice is about quality of life — living each moment as fully as possible — and dying with dignity and as much control as possible," she explained.

Dame Cicely Saunders established the first hospice in England in 1967. The concept spread to the U.S. in the '70s and to Vermont by the end of the decade. Holly became interested in learning more about it after caring for her father, who died at home.

"Even though it was the most painful loss I'd ever experienced, I was left with an indescribable feeling of joy and inner peace," she wrote.

Holly attended hospice volunteer training in 1986 and soon got involved with the group working to establish the Vermont Respite House. She helped raise $1 million for it. Bobby designed and built the first 13-bed facility in Williston, which featured a large mural of Noah's Ark, painted by Holly's mother, Elaine Park Dudley. The animals were incorporated into the names of the rooms.

Twenty-five years later, when it came time to expand, Holly helped round up $8 million more. Bobby purchased land in Colchester and built the McClure Miller Respite House, which opened in 2016. They even moved the mural.

Holly was also involved in the Madison-Deane Initiative, which helps educate medical students and professionals in Vermont about death and dying. Holly helped the initiative plan talks and conferences and brought speakers to Vermont from around the world. The group also produced an award-winning documentary called The Pioneers of Hospice that focused on Dame Cecily, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, Florence Wald and Balfour Mount.

When Dame Cecily died in 2005, Holly, Peg and their friend Pam MacPherson were among the members of the initiative who traveled to England to attend her memorial in Westminster Abbey.

'A transformational leader'

Holly and Bobby Miller with kids from King Street Center - COURTESY OF KING STREET CENTER
  • Courtesy Of King Street Center
  • Holly and Bobby Miller with kids from King Street Center

Holly advocated for those at the beginning of life, too. She and Bobby were early supporters of the King Street Center, home to Head Start toddler and preschool programs and afterschool activities; the Millers pledged $100,000 for its first capital campaign. The couple donated the same amount to establish a scholarship fund for college-bound students who attended Burlington's H.O. Wheeler School, now the Integrated Arts Academy.

They also gave to local colleges — and not just money. Holly was elected to Champlain College's board of trustees in 1992, shortly after it began offering bachelor's degrees. Her 15-year tenure coincided with Champlain's growth into a four-year institution that today offers 80 undergraduate and graduate degree programs.

Holly was also the first female president of the board. Her stepdaughter, Stephanie Miller Taylor, said Holly wasn't the bra-burning type but was definitely "a badass feminist."

In a statement after her death, Champlain College president Alex Hernandez called Holly "a transformational leader." She and Bobby made the college more accessible to a broad population of students, he said.

Champlain awarded the Millers honorary degrees in 2009. The University of Vermont followed suit in 2015.

In 2016, the Millers established a chair in palliative medicine at the Robert Larner College of Medicine and made a $13 million gift to the UVM Medical Center's new inpatient care building, aka the Miller Building.

In 2017, then-UVM president E. Thomas Sullivan nominated Holly for Vermonter of the Year, an honor bestowed by the Burlington Free Press. "Holly's commitment to creating an environment where people receive compassionate and patient-centered care is a legacy like no other," he wrote.

'She was such a believer in me'

That's not Holly's only legacy. Peg offered another: "For me, it's her heart," she said of her friend of 40 years. "As a friend, she was such a believer in me."

Erika echoed that assessment of her mom. "She taught me to explore my beliefs," she said. "She taught me everything I needed was inside me."

Erika and her mom were very different. Holly was a fashionista who could throw a perfect party and never went anywhere without lipstick. Or a book — if a title appeared on the New York Times bestseller list, she had to have it.

Erika has always been more comfortable in the wilderness, getting her hands dirty. After graduating from UVM with a degree in biochemistry, she moved to Colorado. Holly didn't try to stop her. "Even though it terrified her, I'm sure," Erika said. "She allowed me to pursue my own passions and be myself."

When it became clear Holly was developing dementia, Holly and Bobby started planning for how she would spend her final years. "She was a big planner," Erika said. When Holly needed to move out of their downtown Burlington condo, Bobby built a house in Colchester next to the Respite House. He designed the floor plan to mimic the condo so it would feel familiar to her.

They hired caregivers to be with Holly at home, and her friends Peg and Pam spent one day with her every week. Tuesdays were Peg's, and Fridays were Pam's, a routine that lasted five years.

They brought Holly to visit the Respite House, to see her mother's mural; they took her to get creemees; they sat with her and looked through her many photo albums — Holly traveled widely and was a prolific photographer.

Those days with Holly weren't always easy, but Peg describes the experience as "a true gift."

"She would have done it for me," Peg said.

A celebration of life for Holly Miller will be held on Friday, November 17, at 1 p.m. at UVM's Davis Center.

This article was commissioned and paid for by Pomerleau Real Estate.