The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber


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Miller, Eunice Viola Babcock
(March 1, 1871–January 24, 1937)

–Iowa's first female Secretary of State and founder of the Iowa State Highway Patrol—was born on a farm near Washington, Iowa, the daughter of Nathan L. Babcock, a respected local stock buyer, and Ophelia (Smith) Babcock. In 1876 the family moved into the town of Washington, where Viola (known as Ola) attended local public schools and the Washington Academy. After graduating from Iowa Wesleyan College in Mount Pleasant, she taught in rural schools in Washington County.

    In 1895 she married Alex Miller, editor of the Washington Democrat, a local weekly newspaper. Although both Ola and Alex came from Republican families, Alex was active in Democratic politics at the local and state levels, including an unsuccessful campaign for governor in 1926. After his death in 1927, Ola became active in politics, traveling the state on behalf of the Iowa Democratic Party and social reform causes and encouraging women to take advantage of the 19th Amendment and exercise their voting rights. She was also active in the Methodist church, the 19th Century Club, and the Daughters of the American Revolution, and was local, state, and national president of the PEO.

    In 1928 she endorsed Democratic candidate Alfred E. Smith for president. In 1932 she endorsed Democratic candidate Franklin Roosevelt after interviewing him in New York City for the Des Moines Register. That year, in recognition of her work for the party and to honor her husband, the Iowa Democratic Party nominated her as its candidate for secretary of state. She consented to be on the ballot because it would "please Alex," and she was willing to be a martyr for the cause (given the historical unlikelihood of electing a Democrat to statewide office in Iowa). Her son-in-law George Gallup got his start in political polling by correctly predicting her election victory.

    When Miller was elected in 1932, the Motor Vehicle Department was a division of the Secretary of State's office, with 15 employees who were primarily license inspectors. Miller, who learned just before her term began that a close friend's young son had been killed in a traffic accident, immediately set out to improve motor vehicle safety. Without legislative authorization or support, she reassigned the duties of her 15 Motor Vehicle Department employees. Each man was assigned to patrol several counties for unsafe vehicles and reckless drivers. "From now on," she said, "save lives first, money afterwards."She instructed the men to be courteous, give roadside assistance, and spread the word about highway safety. A widespread campaign of public programs and speeches called attention to the new work, and its dramatic success in reduc ing accidents and injuries on the state's highways enabled her to convince the legislature to pass a bill in 1935 establishing the Iowa State Highway Patrol and authorizing a training camp for recruits.

    Many had thought Miller's election to state office was a fluke, but she was easily reelected in 1934, and in 1936 she received more votes than any previous candidate in Iowa history. Meanwhile, polls showed that the State Highway Patrol was second only to God in Iowa's public esteem. Miller never stopped working for highway safety. Late in 1935 she began a campaign against drunk drivers. Even after she became ill early in her third term of office, she continued to give safety speeches. When she was hospitalized, she asked that her "boys not send flowers," but they did so in great quantities–"the first time," she commented, "they've ever been guilty of insubordination."

    After Miller died on January 24, 1937, more than 3,000 people viewed her body, and all 55 Highway Patrol officers attended her funeral in the Methodist church in Washington to serve as pallbearers. Governor Nelson Kraschel called Miller's passing "a distinct loss to the state of Iowa.... As a public official she possessed exceptional ability and in her official position she endeared herself in the hearts of more people in a shorter time than any official in the history of Iowa."Coworkers attributed her success as an administrator to "her man-like ability to pick department heads she believed capable, demand results, but refrain from interfering with the petty details of administration herself."In 1975 Miller was one of the first four women chosen for the Iowa Women's Hall of Fame, and in 1999 the Old Historical Building in Des Moines was renamed the Ola Babcock Miller State Official Building.
Sources include a collection of newspaper clippings in the Washington (Iowa) Public Library; Scott M. Fisher, Courtesy, Service, Protection: The Iowa State Patrol (1994); and Eric Bakker, "Renaming the Old Historical Building in Recognition of Ola Babcock Miller," Iowa Official Register, 1999–2000 . A front-page obituary appeared in the Des Moines Register, 1/25/1937; see also Des Moines Register, 8/12/1989.
Contributor: Michael Zahs