Gary celebrates life of beloved historian

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Dharathula H. “Dolly” Millender

Millender dies peacefully Christmas Day

Historian Dharathula Millender loved to learn about Gary’s past. On Christmas Day, she faded quietly into the city’s history.

Dharathula Millender, known to many as “Dolly,” and as “Gary’s Library Lady” died after a lengthy battle with several health problems. She was 95.

Millender received her Bachelor’s degree from Indiana State Teacher’s College in 1941 and began a long and distinguished professional career. As an educator and librarian, she served in South Carolina, Maryland and at the Library of Congress in Washington, D. C. before coming to Gary. Her first position in Gary was as the Pulaski School librarian in 1960. Later, she received a Master’s in educational media from Purdue/Lafayette in 1968.

During the historic administration of Mayor Richard Gordon Hatcher, Millender was the first African-American female elected as City Council-woman-at-large in the city of Gary from 1980 to 1992. She was also elected to the newly-elected Gary School Board of Trustees from 1992 to 2004. Prior to these two positions, Millender was a library trustee on two separate periods, starting in the 1970s. For many years, Millender served as a precinct committeewoman for G2-13 on the west side of Gary where she lived.

Acknowledging the passing of Millender, Hatcher stated, “It comes as a great surprise and loss I’m sure to thousands of people in our city. I think that Mrs. Millender was a teacher, librarian, member of Gary Common Council and the School Board. She single-handedly saved the culture of the city of Gary when the symphony moved to the county. She established a new symphony right here in the city of Gary and has maintained it all this time. And, of course, she was a great historian and writer. I read many of her books, especially the ones she wrote on great Black heroes like Dr. Martin Luther King, so that our children could understand the greatness of our people. It is a huge loss to the culture and to our community to lose Dolly Millender.”

Naomi Millender, Dolly’s oldest daughter, said her mother was working on two projects that were very important to her: the completion of her newest book on the history of Gary and the completion of the renovation of the Gary Land Company Building at Fourth and Massachusetts, East Gateway Park.

She was in the process of sending her manuscript to Arcadia Publishing Company when she became ill.

“She was so down because she hadn’t gotten it the way she wanted it, but the publisher said send it, ‘We want that book.’ The family plans to submit the manuscript to the company,” shared Naomi. Dolly is also the author of six children’s books, including biographies of Crispus Attucks, Louis Armstrong and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Admiration for her commitment to the city of Gary came from many legislative, civic and community leaders, including Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson, who shared her thoughts on the passing of Dolly.

“Like many in the city of Gary, I was saddened to hear of the passing of a great pillar in our community, Dharathula “Dolly” Millender. I don’t believe I can recall a time when there was a question about any aspect of Gary’s history that the name Dolly Millender didn’t come to mind.

“Dolly Millender was truly a historian and simply a walking book of knowledge. Her excitement to share her vast learning and wisdom made her one of the most respected and beloved public figures in the city of Gary. She was an educator; a warm, kind and caring person who was excited to share Gary’s history with citizens, visitors and particularly our children. Many were inspired by her intelligence and her appreciation of the arts and sciences.

“Throughout my career and my tenure as mayor, she was always quick to offer advice and encouragement to me and my family. She understood the challenges inherent in the job and always encouraged me to do my best and not worry about the criticism that was not constructive.

“On behalf of all of the citizens of Gary, I express our deepest and heartfelt condolences to Naomi and the Millender family during this difficult time. Dolly Millender will always be remembered for great contributions to the people and the city of Gary. Her legacy will always be a part of Gary’s history.”

Dolly and Naomi also have a radio program on radio station WLTH in Gary, “Telling Our Gary Stories,” that airs every Saturday between 9 and 10 a.m.

“The City of Gary, as well as the entire State of Indiana, suffered a tremendous loss with the passing on Dolly Millender,” says Natalie Ammons, station manager for WLTH.

Ammons went on to say, “Millender was instrumental in Marion Williams’, (owner of WLTH), decision to return the station to Gary two years ago. In late May, Millender began broadcasting from her home because of her deteriorating health. As time passed, the airways became silent of Millender’s voice, but never her desire to share her historic passages of the chronicling of a city she deeply loved. She embraced the community’s youth telling them that it was time for them to step up and take the torch she dutifully carried.”

Ammons said her spirit was wounded as she learned of Millender’s passing. “We will miss her soft, sweet demeanor and her dedication.”

Before Dolly was on the air, she worked in the newspaper industry.

Dorothy R. Leavell, editor and publisher of the Gary Crusader, noted the tremendous loss of the most knowledgeable Gary historian.

“It is with great sadness we must say goodbye to Mrs. Dolly Millender. She served as the first editor of the Gary Crusader, and thus, became a Crusader Family member. We mourn the loss of one who was instrumental in welcoming us to the Gary community and guided our editorial stance, which we strive to continue today. I met her for the first time in 1961 when I joined the Crusader staff, and I shall remember her boundless energy and activism. She made countless contributions to the city of Gary and the state of Indiana historically, and she will be hard to replace. Our sympathy goes to her daughters and other relatives as they make adjustments to life without an integral part of their being.”

Millender was the founder of the Gary Historical and Cultural Society Inc., a nonprofit community organization that began in 1976 to preserve the rich cultural legacies of the city. Throughout its years, she coordinated several research activities for the organization.

According to Naomi, her mother’s mission statement for the organization was to “uplift and enrich Gary and surrounding communities by preserving, developing and sponsoring cultural, historical and educational programs for citizens of all ages.”

Naomi said so many people were concerned about her and would call. She said, “Her little body just struggled and struggled through so many aftermaths of surgical procedures and having to endure some of the aftermaths—it finally took its toll on her. She had a real strong little body, and they were amazed how she could be so strong and healthy at the age of 95.”

State Representative Dr. Vernon G. Smith said Dolly was a true asset to this community. “The service she provided as an elected official and the historical aspect that she gave and tried to preserve in this community cannot be replaced. She certainly was a valuable aspect to our community. She loved Gary and cared about Gary. I just pray that in 100 years that we will have someone else to fulfill her shoes.”

Atty. Karen Pulliam was a member of the Gary School Board during the same time Dolly was a member from 2002 to 2004, and offered her memories, “She had the wisdom and the ability that comes with maturity. She could evaluate things. She has been on the library board and the city council so she had the ability to see things from many vantage points and that was an asset for the board.”

Dolly Millender is survived by her oldest daughter, Naomi; her youngest daughter, Justine Millender-Preston; her granddaughter, Christine Preston, and grandson, Isaac Preston, III; son-in-law, Isaac Preston, Jr.; her brother, Rev. Nicholas Hood of Detroit, MI; and sister, Estelle Anderson of Buffalo, NY, along with many nieces, nephews and other in-laws.

The funeral will take place Saturday, Jan. 2, 2016 at the Genesis Convention Center in Gary. Viewing will start at 9 a.m. with funeral services beginning at 11 a.m. Funeral directions are being handled by Guy & Allen Funeral Home.

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