The Gary Roosevelt Class of 1969 has staged prayer breakfasts for at least the past 10 or 15 years – roughly the same period of time I’ve been in Indianapolis. The early start of the event never allowed me to participate – that is, until last year.
The reason that compelled my making the extra effort to attend the prayer breakfast last year was simple. The guest speaker was Dharath-ula “Dolly” Millender. That was the one that I couldn’t afford to miss. It was a great decision. She was amazing.
At the age of 94, she asked to deliver her speech sitting. That didn’t detract one iota from her thoughtful, inspiring, powerful presentation. For almost an hour, my classmates and I were enthralled to hear the lucid, well-organized, dramatic history of Black life in Gary, Indiana. And no one, absolutely no one, knew it better.
Dolly came to the city as a librarian at Pulaski School in 1960. She told the Panther gathering that she would love to have attended Roosevelt with its proud tradition, compassionate teaching, irrepressible spirit and priceless life lessons. She told us that she and her siblings were fortunate to have gotten the same kind of nurturing at home – so she could easily relate.
Her parents and grandparents instilled in her the fact that she wasn’t better than anybody and no one was better than her; that she had to embrace education and dutifully prepare for opportunities; that she had to be principled and articulate, and that the bottom line in life is service to others. These tenets characterized her life.
It’s widely known that Mrs. Millender was the consummate Gary historian – a virtual human encyclopedia. She was CEO and founder of the Gary Historical & Cultural Society in 1976 to “uplift and enrich Gary and surrounding communities by preserving, developing and sponsoring cultural, historical and educational programs for citizens of all ages.”
In her storied career, she was also a Gary Library Board trustee, City Councilperson and a dedicated member of the Gary School Board of Trustees. She wrote five books for children.
In her political persona, Mrs. Millender was an enthusiastic supporter of Mayor Richard Gordon Hatcher.
During The Class of ‘60 Breakfast, she recalled some of the awful words and acts of racism Hatcher confronted in his efforts to heal the divide created over his ascent to become the first Black elected mayor of a major U.S. city. She debunked the myth that he facilitated white flight.
“It’s just not true,” she said emphatically. “He was trying to build a city and they didn’t want to see us succeed. For some reason, the people didn’t want us to have even a piece of the pie – all we wanted was a piece. The racists didn’t want to see an African American administration succeed but Mayor Hatcher rose above it.”
It was always a significant occurrence for me when Mrs. Millender and I were able to engage in one on one conversation. During my years as a reporter for the Gary Post-Tribune, that happened frequently. Each time we spoke, I learned something new, something valuable. I learned early on that this diminutive woman was actually a giant.
Away from her public persona, my childhood best friend Ernest Battle is her nephew so I would occasionally see the family side of Mrs. Millender at the 24th and Jefferson home of Dr. Haron and Ruth Battle. What a distinguished bloodline. Mrs. Battle was an accomplished English teacher at Roosevelt before passing in her mid-90s. Another sister, Gladys Johnson, was my principal at Garnett Elementary School, who lived to be 100.
It was a blessing to know such an iconic figure as “Dolly” Millender on a personal level. No one was more loyal to people, places and things in which she believed. Her support for me during one of the most daunting chapters of my career is something for which I will forever be grateful. Mine was one of the countless lives she positively impacted in Gary and beyond.
Sensing her mortality, Mrs. Millender told that 2014 Gary Roosevelt Prayer Breakfast that each generation has to pass the baton of responsibility to the next at some point; that with the girding of our identity, purpose, vision and history, each generation is placed in a position to take their possibilities to the next level.
She admonished, “This is your time to use what you know and what you have experienced. You are privileged. Use what you’ve been given to create a better atmosphere and pass it on. You have something put into you that no one can take away. Make sure the circle is not broken and that we continue to assure the same for our children and their children.”
Abraham Lincoln once said, “In the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.”
Dharathula “Dolly” Millender was blessed with both.
CIRCLE CITY CONNECT-ION by Vernon A. Williams is a series of essays on myriad topics that include social issues, human interest, entertainment and profiles of difference makers who are forging change in a constantly evolving society. Williams is a 40-year veteran journalist based in Indianapolis, IN – commonly referred to as The Circle City.
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