Life Stories

Reporter and nursing advocate a study in willpower

CorrespondentDecember 9, 2012 

Francis Miller

COURTSEY OF DEBORAH JAQUES

  • More information Born July 21, 1921 in Winston-Salem, NC 1942 graduates from the Women’s College of North Carolina 1942-1945 works as the first female beat reporter at The News & Observer 1945-1948 works for Carolina Power and Light 1953-1956 lobbies at the General Assembly as executive director for the state Council for Social Legislation 1956-1972 works as assistant executive director of the North Carolina Nurses Association 1972-1986 serves as executive director of the NCNA 1984 is the first non-nurse to receive an honorary degree from the School of Nursing at East Carolina University. She is also a News & Observer “Tar Heel of the Week.” Died Nov. 20, 2012

Frances “Frankie” Mae Newsom Miller

Frances “Frankie” Miller graduated from college in the middle of World War II, timing that likely helped her land a job as a pioneering female beat reporter at The News & Observer.

The way her daughter Nancy Dunn tells it, Miller might have spent a day or two writing for the obit section, or maybe about local brides – the only things the women wrote about once – before she jumped at the chance to be a police reporter.

She would walk from the N&O office to the police station in her signature four-inch heels at midnight to peruse the blotter. And even though her distinguished colleagues might have called her “Legs,” police officers thought she would be safer with an escort. She accepted and was happy to get a lift down the street in a squad car, though that gesture did not keep her from occasionally asking questions that made the burliest of police officers blush.

Miller died last month at the age of 91. At a time when most women did not work outside the home, she forged a career lobbying at the state level, holding executive positions along the way. In addition to raising three children, she would also endure unspeakable hardship when her mother, brother and sister-in-law were murdered in the 1980s.

During her reporting years, she eventually made the jump to writing for the political column Under the Dome, covering the state legislation and gaining insight into what it took to get things done.

“She was never a politician, but she got along with politicians,” Dunn said.

The capstone of her legacy would be serving as executive director of the North Carolina Nurses Association. She started working for the NCNA part time, writing for its internal publication, the Tar Heel Nurse. She would eventually become director, and under her watch the association fought to establish the profession of nursing as an equal in the world of health care providers.

When she was named Tar Heel of the Week by the N&O in 1984, she made a point of saying that nurses were no longer “handmaidens” to physicians, and that “nursing has its own scope of practice, and much of what nurses do, physicians cannot do.” Those things included counseling and teaching patients, in addition to carrying out the doctor’s orders.

Among her many accomplishments was the revision of the Nursing Practice Act, which modernized the law.

“It actually created the first, and still the only, peer-elected board of nursing in the country,” said Gale Adcock, Cary councilwoman and former NCNA president.

During Miller’s tenure, the association also fought for the 1983 Midwifery Bill, which established the Midwifery Joint Committee and gave increasing legitimacy to the practice of the nurse midwife.

And in 1993 she helped establish the Third Party Reimbursement Bill, a piece of legislation that amended insurance law to require advance-practice nurses to receive insurance payment for delivering the same services as other practitioners.

Throughout much of her 30-year career at the NCNA, Miller had children at home. Her youngest daughter, Deborah Jaques, remembers Miller working longer hours than her father, a man she said was “spoiled rotten” by his doting wife.

“She could come home and cook a full country meal from scratch – there were no microwaves back then – clean it up, and then sit down and go back to work again,” Jaques said. Even as director, Miller kept up with the Tar Heel Nurse and could be found cutting and pasting the layouts for the galley copies late into the night, trying to meet the printer’s deadline.

“Nowadays, everybody expects if you work you can’t do the house cleaning, the cooking, (taking) care of the kids all at the same time. But she did it. I think how exhausting it must have been,” Dunn marveled.

In the midst of her career, motherhood and marriage, to L.L. “Bing” Miller, Miller managed to survive a grievous loss. Her own mother, Hattie Newsom; and brother and sister-in-law, Robert and Florence Newsom, were killed in Winston-Salem on May 18, 1985, in a notorious case that was recounted in a book, “Bitter Blood,” and television movie.

“I can’t believe that she didn’t fall apart,” Jaques said.

“She led us through that,” Dunn said. “She was a study in sheer willpower, really.”

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