Jean and her granddaughters
Jean crossing the Mackinaw Bridge on her 90th birthday along with her daughter Mary
[Original article in its entirety, as it appeared in the Marion Press, January 18th, 2019]
Jean Bates was born on a farm near Luther in 1926.
The oldest of eight siblings, Jean graduated first in her class at Luther High School in 1944. Although she had an academic scholarship offer to attend Ferris State University, she didn’t have the money for housing or transportation, and chose to stay in Luther, where she married Ken Miller and started a family of her own.
Two years later, in 1946, Jean’s mother, Elma, passed away. At the age of 20, and with her father working in Lansing, Jean found herself at the head of the household raising her seven siblings, along with her own three month-old baby, Margot.
Needless to say, the years to come would bring their own set of challenges.
Fast forward some 73 years.
Jean Miller now has seven children of her own: Mike, Margot, Karen, Chuck, Brian, Mary, and Kevin.
She also has 16 grandkids, and 26 great-grandkids. In her own words, she has one, big, wonderful family.
And while she’s seen her share of life’s ups and downs, she’s remained a steadfast believer in the value of a good education – along with the value of community support.
After spending a majority of her career in community outreach – for organizations such as 6-CAPS and Mid-Michigan Community Health – Jean is now retired, where she works Wednesdays and Fridays at her Budget Shoppe Thrift Store on M-66.
And she continues to volunteer for the Marion Athletic Boosters, and the Marion Arbor of Gleaners.
More than anything, however, her family has remained – and will continue to remain – the most important thing in her life.
We caught up with Jean at her store recently where we talked about her family, her shop, and how the world has changed over the last 92 years. We learned that life hasn’t always been easy for Jean and her family. We learned that a solid work ethic and a big heart can get a person, and their family, a long way. We learned that Jean Miller is much more than just another face in the crowd.
Marion Press: Are you originally from Marion?
Jean: We moved here in ’58. At that time I just had the three kids – Mike, Margot, and Karen – and they were in the elementary school. Chuck, Brian, Mary and Kevin were all born here. All the kids graduated from Marion. I graduated from Luther in ’44.
MP: What kept you busy growing up in Luther?
Jean: Well, we lived on a farm. It was just a small farm; we had eight or ten milk cows. It was 80 acres but there wasn’t much farming done – it didn’t make ya rich!
My dad and mother were both working in Lansing at the time I was born. My mother, Elma Britton, graduated from Luther, and her sister did too. My mother worked in the capital building as a secretary after she graduated from school, and my dad worked at Fisher Body.
MP: Graduating from Luther High School in 1944, what were your interests?
Jean: We had basketball teams in Luther at the time – that was about all of the sports programs; we had no football or anything like that. In fact, I think we only had varsity teams, no JV teams.
MP: Did you play basketball at all?
Jean: Yeah, yeah. I wasn’t all that great at it – that was back when it was six man, half court, you know. The guards played on one half and the forwards played on the other half. And so you didn’t cross that line – that was the foul line in the middle. The guards never shot baskets, they just kept the other team from shooting!
MP: And I know your kids and grandkids enjoyed basketball, and we still see you at the games.
Jean: Oh, I liked it. I had this real thing about education and athletics and things to keep the kids busy. I’m so proud of my family. I had seven kids, and they all graduated from Marion. Four of them graduated from college – from a family that had hardly any income. But they always saved their gift money – Christmas, birthday [money] from their grandparents and aunts and uncles. And if they earned money, they’d put half of whatever they earned in a savings account. All my kids did that. And the other half, they bought things that they wanted that I couldn’t afford.
Margot, the oldest, she babysat. And when she graduated, she had 1200 dollars in the bank, earned at 25 cents an hour. That was just half of it – it was all of her gift money, but anything she needed for school, she bought that herself. And the other kids all worked part-time jobs while they were in school.
They never complained about second-hand clothes – but I always made a point that they were always clean, and they were mint, and that they fit. My mother, bless her, [gave me] second-hand clothes. I had a cousin who was working and had a real good job, but she was quite heavy-set. And she gave mom a lot of clothes for me. And mother thought just shortening them was all that had to be done! So nothing really fit me very good. But I learned to sew.
Then my mother’s health got really bad, and my dad went back to Lansing to work at Fisher Body to get health insurance because her health was getting so bad. She died two years after I graduated, and I had seven brothers and sisters younger than me, and my dad was working away.
MP: And you were the oldest? That was probably quite a responsibility put on your shoulders.
Jean: I was the oldest. Seven brothers and sisters and a new baby. Margot was just a few months old.
MP: So after you had seven kids of your own, you already knew what it was like to raise a big family.
Jean: I’ve spent my whole life raising kids! And I did a good job of it, I think. My brothers and sisters were all in school yet and they all graduated, except my next-to-youngest sister. And that was after my dad remarried and took the younger kids to Lansing with him.
MP: And now you have a whole lot of grandkids and great-grandkids.
Jean: I have 16 grandkids and 26 great-grandkids. All my grandkids graduated school and went to college. Now my great-grandchildren are all on the honor roll. And another thing is that they’ve all stayed out of trouble! My family is my pride.
MP: You were a community outreach worker for many years – how did you get involved in that?
Jean: After [ex-husband] Ken left, I didn’t know what I was going to do. I’d worked in the gas station, and I did the bookwork for him, and I got recommendations from the state for my record keeping, but I didn’t have any work experience other than that. And Marion just stepped right up.
Margot was in college, and Karen was a senior in high school and they both worked at the fruit market in town for Arlene Swiler. And when school started back up, Arlene asked the girls if I’d be interested in replacing them until the end of October. So she gave me a job – I had two little ones who weren’t old enough for school – and she told me I could bring them up there with me. But she told me that she’d only be open until the end of October.
So the last day in October, Kay Whittenberger from the Corner Café was in there and she said: ‘What are you gonna do now, Jean?’ And I said, well, I don’t know. And she said: ‘You wanna come work for me for deer season?’ But she kept me on until January, and she said that she’d like to keep me on, but she just can’t. Chuck Kelly, he was in the restaurant the last day that I was working, and he was [talking] with the sheriff from Osceola County. And he overheard us talking and he said: ‘Jean, Kay says you’re gonna be all through here, 6-CAPS is looking for an outreach worker.’ And I said: ‘What’s an outreach worker?’ He said, well, they do all kinds of things, and you could do it.
MP: What are some of the changes you’ve seen in Marion over the last 60 years?
Jean: Well, Dick and Arlene Swiler had the fruit market there over by the stockyard. Arlene would go in early in the morning, and sort through all the fruit, so if anything had a bruise they took it out. And they knew that I canned. And when my girls worked up there, they’d bring home all those bruised peaches and tomatoes and I’d can them after they’d bring ‘em home. I’d always bought peaches to can, but that year they were so expensive and I didn’t have money at all. And I canned 75 quarts of peaches! All those peaches that Arlene sent home with the girls. That’s the way it was.
[Marion police officer] Orv Richardson brought me road killed deer, because he knew I was the one who always butchered and cut them up. I canned a lot of that. Boiled the bones and had soup broth. Orville knew I did all that stuff.
MP: Orville Richardson, he was the town cop for quite a while, right?
Jean: Yeah, and he was so good with the kids in town. Chuck was the oldest one at home then, and he helped Chuck skin it out and everything. Chuck said: ‘We were lucky to have Orville around when we were growing up, weren’t we?’
Orville had this thing where he’d catch a kid doing something he shouldn’t, and he’d have a way of handling it without contacting their parents or anything. He’d get after them and make sure they didn’t do it again.
MP: And lately you’ve spent a good amount of time volunteering at the school, working in concessions and ticket sales. How’d you get involved with that?
Jean: When my kids were in sports, it was getting to a point where the athletic budget was kind of tight. They told me that I could come to all the ballgames for free, if you contact people to sell tickets and keep with ticket sales. So I did that to get to go to the games.
MP: Do you still run ticket sales?
Jean: Brian Polk sells the tickets. I was running the concession stand – I did that for I don’t know how many years – and we put an ad in the paper for volunteers for the concession stand. Well, Brian come and work for a football game, and next thing I know, Brian’s selling tickets – and he’s been selling tickets ever since! I’ve said they stole my best volunteer.
I was one of the original members of the athletic boosters. Brian Swiler, Bill Johnson, Chuck Kelly – I was one of the originals, and I’m still there. I was treasurer for the Booster’s clubs, and one day I was organizing, and they brought me all the papers in a box. No records of nothing! The checkbook had never been balanced or nothing. So that didn’t hit well; the bookkeeper in me wasn’t too happy. It took me about two years to get that straightened out.
MP: What are some of your fondest memories of Marion over the years?
Jean: Oh, I don’t know. I remember when we lived in town, they used to have baked goods at the Fair. Their exhibits – I used to make cinnamon rolls and enter them in the fair, and I used to win, too.
MP: You must make good cinnamon rolls!
Jean: I used to. Can’t make them for nothing anymore!
One thing I remember is that my school class ring is in the Mill Pond. They used to have the swimming hole down there – all the kids in town just used to live down there. And I had given my class ring to my oldest daughter, Margot. And she went down there swimming; the three oldest were all down there. And she took her ring off – it was a little loose and she didn’t wanna lose it – and she laid it down on her towel on the beach. And [her friend] Junior Zeeryp was just teasing her – he picked up the towel and pretended to throw it, and the ring went flying into the pond!
MP: What is the best advice that you’ve ever been given?
Jean: I would say the Golden Rule is a pretty good one. Do unto others and you would want them to do unto you.