Friday, April 23, 1999
A woman driven to communicate by TV still loves the written word
Ellen Miller's diminutive stature belies a pioneering spirit usually associated with larger-than-life types. Her 40-year career in broadcasting and communications has been marked by a number of early or experimental ventures.
In the late '50s, Miller produced closed-circuit-TV programs for a Manhattan elementary school in a unique project designed to forge better community ties. In the mid-'70s, she founded the audio-visual department at Harvard Law School which produced the first televised trial in Massachusetts. And two weeks ago, Miller launched the first meeting of the Barbara Pym Society of North America. Pym, a British writer who died in 1980 at the age of 66, was once named one of the "most underrated novelists of the century" by the Times Literary Supplement.
Throughout her career Miller's drive to communicate has provided a fabric into which she has continually woven her interests in educational TV, community access, oral histories and small-town life.
Growing up with a
Miller grew up in upstate New York in the town of Auburn, near Syracuse. By Carlisle standards, Auburn wasn't a small town, even then. It had a population of about 36,000. "But it felt small," Miller explains, "and that's where my love of small towns developed." Miller returned to small-town life in 1994, when she and her second husband, Bill Houssell, an avid gardener, moved from Belmont to Carlisle.
After completing her undergraduate work in languages at the University of Rochester, Miller turned down an offer to teach English at a French university, because it wasn't the career path she desired. She went on to obtain a Master's degree in television from Syracuse University in 1958. "I was really interested in educational TV," says Miller, "the precursor to PBS."
Intersecting career paths
In the late '50s a graduate degree in television entitled the holder to begin a career on the bottom rung. Miller felt privileged to work at an ABC-TV affiliate in New York, as " a lowly secretary, the lowliest of the low."
Before too long, Miller was hired by a school in lower Manhattan where she was able to exercise her interest in educational TV. She produced community-based programs intended to get parents involved in school issues. These programs were broadcast throughout the school, as well as a neighborhood house that was one of New York's older settlement houses, and residential housing projects. "That's where my interest in communicating by TV began."
Miller's career was interrupted by the university-hopping of her first husband, a law professor, and the raising of her family, but in the '60s, she spent seven years at the University of Michigan TV center. Here she produced public service programs, what today would be called community access, as well as educational programs for use by commercial stations.
When Miller founded the audio-visual department at Harvard Law School in 1974, there wasn't much video in classroom use, and certainly not in legal education. "I talked myself into the job," says Miller, "and it was really excellent." In 1976, long before Court TV, Miller's department was given the tapes of the then-famous Big Dan rape trial to log and use in the classroom. The result for the law school was two-fold: the production of Massachusetts' first televised courtroom trial, and an invaluable opportunity for law students to analyze the ingredients of a real trial.
Miller remains at Harvard, but in two new roles. She is currently director of publications at Harvard Law School, as well as the law school webmaster. "For a while we tried [the title] webmistress," laughs Miller, "but the cuteness wore off."
Purveyors of Pym
The most frequent question asked at any Barbara Pym conference, according to Miller is, "What's the first [Pym] book you read?" The reason, she explains, "is that most of us feel that we're the only people who have read this author, and that she is speaking directly to us." Miller describes the joy of meeting kindred spirits who all share the same excitement over Pym's eleven novels. "She writes about very unassuming, everyday characters that are very much like all of us," says Miller, "and she writes with irony and humor and insight into what makes people tick. They are very quiet novels [placed] in an entirely recognizable world."
Miller first read Quartet in Autumn, which was short-listed for the Booker Prize and is considered one of Pym's darker novels, in about 1980. She was looking for something to read, and checked it out of the Belmont library knowing nothing about the author. Miller was profoundly affected and proceeded to read every Pym novel she could get her hands on, about seven or eight at the time. "I had never, never done this before," says Miller, "and I still don't know why I did."
Miller began researching Pym to learn more about her, and finding little information in this country, she went to England for three weeks in 1982. She stresses, "This was not unusual. I had been to England and I have English friends and cousins." Her research was fruitful, especially when, on a whim, she contacted Pym's sister, Hilary, who was still living in their cottage in a small town near Oxford. Over afternoon tea, a wonderful relationship was formed, and the following year Miller returned to videotape Hilary, along with Pym's literary executor. Given Miller's professional background, video was a logical vehicle for capturing information and essence. "Now it would be called an oral history," says Miller of this video, "but it came out of my desire to communicate what was told to me about [Barbara Pym]."
A year or two later, after the publication of Pym's autobiography, Miller organized an evening of Pym readings at the Belmont Public Library. She expected 25-30 people, far less than the 80 who actually showed up. This kind of overwhelming response would play itself out again and again over the years.
Fast-forward to the early '90s. Miller has made intermittent trips to England, which included a Barbara Pym Literary Weekend marking the official beginning of the U.K.-based Barbara Pym Society. In 1995, Miller was appointed U.S. representative to the Pym Society. "One of my jobs was to collect the annual dues from Americans," says Miller, "so that they didn't have to convert into pounds."
Launching a conference
Last fall, while attending a Pym conference in England, Miller received an unexpected offer of speaking services from the preeminent Pym scholar, Dr. Barbara Everett. Also a well-known Shakespearean scholar, Everett became the linchpin in Miller's plan to launch the first North American Pym conference, a two-day event packed with learned speakers, publishers, BBC videos, readings and good food, held at Harvard on April 9-10.
As with the Belmont readings, the response was overwhelming. Miller, who had originally hoped for 30, found herself reluctantly turning people away when registration topped100. She had made another discovery on that evening nearly 15 years ago in Belmont. Diane White, the Boston Globe syndicated columnist, was also a huge Pym fan. White's early promotion of the April event in a January column opened the flood gates. "It sounds cultish," admits Miller, "and maybe it is, but it's kind of a nice cult."
The unofficial Pym society now extends world-wide. She has readers in every country, has been translated into many languages, and most recently, a fan in Italy created a website.
Involved in this small town
Since moving to Carlisle, Miller has continued her relationship with video documentary through Carlisle's Oral History program. After the 1983 video of Pym's sister and her literary executor, Miller had gone on to produce oral histories of emeritus Harvard Law School professors, in a series called "Conversations."
The other relationship that compelled Miller to get involved in our local oral history program was her love of farms and farm-life. "I spent many of my summers on a farm that belonged to friends of my family, who turn out to be the aunt and uncle of [Carlisle resident] Eva Herndon."
The first five subjects of Miller's oral history videos were all people, now in their eighties and nineties, who had grown up on farms, most in Carlisle, around the turn of the century. "I'm really through with the farm phase," says Miller, "and I think I will move into a different period." It has been suggested that she begin interviewing people who moved here in the '50s and '60s.
Miller also assembled "Carlisle's Legacy," a collection of historical photos and accompanying text, exhibited at the newly opened Town Hall.about two year ago.
Recently Miller was asked to join the Cable TV Advisory Committee, an organization created to represent the community and the Town of Carlisle to our cable provider, Cablevision. She describes this as a crucial time, because of broad changes in the cable TV in general, and specifically, because our contract with Cablevision expires in two years. The advisory committee is "obligated to present the town's views to Cablevision and to see what we can write into the next contract."
Working with words
Miller's 40-year fascination with video has never supplanted a strong relationship with the written word. Her love of Barbara Pym's novels and the energy she devotes to keeping Pym's words alive stand as clear evidence. As does the fact that she plays competitive Scrabble. But Miller's work with words doesn't exist only on these elevated planes.
Each Wednesday morning, Miller shows up to help proofread the Mosquito. "I love seeing the news before [the paper] comes out on Friday," Miller enthuses. "I always come home and tell my husband what's on page one."
© 1999 The Carlisle Mosquito