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A Life Well Lived: Dr. Penny Miller, 1940-2018


“Just keep repeating it,” she told me the last time we spoke extensively about her years of advocacy for women in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. “This is what needs to happen: women need to be acknowledged.”

Dr. Frances Penelope (“Penny”) Gustafson Miller, Ph.D., RN, died on December 2, 2018, in Loma Linda, CA. Her memorial will be held this Sunday, December 16, 2018, at ten o’clock in the morning at the LLU Church on Campus Street where she was a long-time member.

Miller worked as a nurse and professor of nursing for over 50 years, the majority of which was spent at the Loma Linda University School of Nursing (1972-2008). With her husband of 53 years, the late Dr. Donald R. Miller, she also co-chaired the Women’s Resource Center (WRC) Advisory Council at La Sierra University from 1996 until 2014; and then continued on as the sole chairperson until 2016. She supported the Association of Adventist Forums (AAF), Association of Adventist Women (AAW) and independent publications such as Adventist Today and Spectrum Magazine.

If outside of Southern California Miller’s name is not immediately recognized, this is no coincidence. One might be forgiven for not realizing that this kind, sweet, and unassuming lady had a backbone and knew how to use it. She and her husband were part of a movement of Adventist lay people in Southern California who directly advanced the cause of gender equality and women’s leadership in the Adventist Church, but who were humble and quiet in their activism. The bulk of their work was done behind the scenes and directly with administrators and decision makers.

I worked with Miller for three years after the end of her professional career, and know her to be an unsung hero — or “shero,” in every positive sense of that term. Her decades of service to Adventist institutions, her significant personal investments in Adventist-affiliated institutions and organizations, and her extensive advocacy have made possible the more egalitarian, women-friendly policies that exist today in the Southeastern California Conference (SECC), Pacific Union, and North-American Division (NAD).

Miller’s legacy is one shared by many idealistic, faithful church workers from the silent, World War II generation who believed in building institutions and creating a better world — not just for their children, but for all people. It is a legacy of principle, not self-promotion. And it is a legacy that must not be forgotten.

Adolescence in War-torn, Rural America

Like both sets of my grandparents, Penny Gustafson Miller grew up in the Midwest and migrated to California after her marriage. She was born on April 7, 1940 — the same day and year as my own mother, although many states apart — at the Hinsdale Sanitarium in Hinsdale, Illinois. Miller’s parents, Bill and Pearl Gustafson, raised her and her younger sister, Jackie (Gustafson) Benson, in rural Whitewater, Wisconsin. When the United States entered World War II, rural farming areas suffered economically, and the Gustafson family struggled to stay afloat financially. Her family moved to whatever jobs were available. She often had to stay with her grandmother so her parents could work.

Her grandmother, Frances La Count, operated a small “board and care” business out of her home to make ends meet. It was there that Miller learned her strong work ethic and wholesome demeanor, as well as her commitment to serving and advocating for women. Taking care of the elderly women who lived in her grandmother’s home, Miller felt “destined” to study nursing. Long before the invention of occupational therapy, she was from the age of five making beds, scrapbooks, doll clothes, and quilts with them.

Miller attended a small two-room public elementary school in St. Petersburg, Florida, where she first witnessed the unfairness of segregation in the South, as her black classmates were made to sit in the back of their school bus. Having grown up in the north, this unexpected experience was eye-opening and it drove her to work for equality in all forms throughout her career.

After World War II, Miller attended Forest Lake SDA Academy in Apopka, FL, before returning to the Midwest and transferring to Wisconsin Adventist Academy in Columbus, WI. At age 16, Miller got her first paid job as a nurse’s aid in Hinsdale. She made hospital beds, bathed bed-bound women, conversed with the patients, gave back rubs, and provided whatever other bedside care was needed. She loved her summers of patient care and hospital work during high school, and spent four years doing public health nursing in Illinois and Minnesota before moving to Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan, where she studied basic nursing and met the man she would later marry. In June 1961, she and her fiancé Don Miller were married in Milton, WI.

As soon as she completed her diploma in nursing at the Hinsdale Sanitarium, the Millers moved to California where Don had been admitted to study medicine at Loma Linda University (LLU). Many years later, she would recall the morning after she and her husband first arrived in Loma Linda. “I awoke in our duplex on Prospect Street, and I looked out from the small porch across the valley and saw the clear crisp mountain peaks [above the San Bernardino National Forest] for the first time — to me, an amazing sight! I couldn’t believe my eyes. I thought for a moment I was actually in heaven; they were so gorgeous! Being from the flat horizon lands of the Midwest, I still marvel at their amazing majestic beauty.”

Activism on Behalf of Women in Nursing and Health Care Administration

Because of her husband’s studies, Miller pursued a B.S. degree in nursing at LLU and graduated from the School of Nursing in 1964 — the same year her husband graduated from the School of Medicine. They moved to Wisconsin for his fellowship with the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Their first child, Shelly, was born in 1964. Penny immediately went back to work as an Intensive Care Unit nurse, telling her daughters later that working as an ICU nurse had “seemed almost easier than caring for a fussy newborn!” Witty to the very end, Miller also said, “Well of course I wanted to go back to work! It was either that or play tennis!”

The family moved to Rochester, NY, where Penny gave birth to a second daughter, Sherry, two years later. After her husband completed a residency at the Mayo Clinic, they returned to Loma Linda. Penny pursued a master’s degree in community health nursing, which she completed in 1972. Her thesis addressed the need for qualified women in administration and identified the barriers to such advancement in the fields of nursing and education.

After raising their two daughters, Penny was invited to teach in the A.S. nursing program at La Sierra University, where her love affair with teaching and student interactions commenced. In 1985, while her daughters were in high school, she completed a Ph.D. in education administration from the University of California at Riverside (UCR), following extensive research on social systems and organizational theory. Her dissertation, “Administrative Career Paths of Women in Academic Higher Education,” prompted various lectures and workshops on topics ranging from career planning in nursing to a Christian woman’s perspective on abortion. She made formal presentations about women’s mobility in educational administration to the California Educational Research Association in 1985, and about women’s mobility in post-secondary education to the American Educational Research Association in 1986.

Not long after she was hired to teach for Loma Linda University in 1972, she began a Parish nursing program. She served on numerous academic committees during her 36 years on the faculty of the School of Nursing and Graduate School, and chaired the board of the LLU Children’s Hospital that oversaw the million-dollar facility’s construction.

During that time she also established a children’s development center that continues to exist today. She and her colleagues fundraised heavily for its success and built centers to deliver services in Loma Linda and La Sierra. Known today as the Loma Linda Academy Children’s Center, it is licensed by the State of California Department of Social Services. The Riverside Press Enterprise recognized it as the #1 best preschool in the Inland Empire for 2018.1

Miller saw the need for working women to have access to good-quality childcare, in large part because of her own experience as a working mother and the “double burden” that women in most U.S. households still carry as they juggle the majority of the domestic labor while also working full-time outside the home. She knew firsthand the enormous effort it takes to find balance between work and family obligations, and proceeded to help countless women pursue their studies, advance their careers, and better carry the demands of family and career.

As an associate professor in the School of Nursing, Miller taught a public policy and nursing class for many years at LLU that introduced her students to political activism and required their annual presence in the CA state capitol in Sacramento to lobby on behalf of nurses. She also required her students to visit the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles each year where they learned compassion for persons less fortunate than they. I find it notable that, although I was myself teaching introductory political science and global studies classes at La Sierra University when I worked with Miller in her capacity as chair of the Women’s Resource Center Advisory Council, she was not one to share these details about her classes or her pedagogical approach. Her daughters did only recently.

Miller was an expert listener and highly skilled at proactively identifying the needs of others, as many women of her and my mother’s generation were taught from an early age. Her focus was always on other people and the circumstances they faced, when advancing within the denominational structure and Adventist institutions.  

Activism on Behalf of Women in Ministry and Denominational Leadership

“I know of no single person in the Southeastern California Conference of Seventh-day Adventists who did more to advance the cause of women’s inclusion in church leadership and their ordination than Penny Miller,” Dr. Larry Geraty said when I queried him about Miller’s impact on the church. When he arrived in Riverside in 1993 to serve as the second president of La Sierra University, a position he held until 2007, Miller was chair of the newly-formed SECC Gender Inclusiveness Commission. She worked hard to “hold the SECC’s feet to the fire,” in his words, and to promote women as ministers and church leaders. She was assisted by many other strong voices who together prepared materials, held educational sessions, staffed booths at the 1995 and 2000 General Conference sessions, and lobbied for the support of women in ministry within the SECC and other levels of the denominational structure. As Geraty said, “Others spoke; Penny acted!”

Miller’s doctoral research on systems and organizational theory at UCR was crucial to identifying the challenges facing the Church and naming the changes necessary for Church institutions to accommodate Adventist women.

In 1995, she felt devastated when the world church voted against giving the NAD the authority to ordain women to the Gospel Ministry during the General Conference Session in Utrecht, Holland. Despite all of the work she and others had done and the collective gains they had made since the conversation around the ordination of Adventist women to the Gospel ministry began in the 1970s, the vote made clear that much work remained. Both she and her husband Don were discouraged, but they redoubled their efforts to advance women within the Seventh-day Adventist denomination. It was their joint mission and calling.

The Gender Inclusiveness Commission that the Millers convened and financially supported planted seeds that would have a long-term impact. The SECC, which is home to the most members of any conference in the NAD and some of the largest and most influential SDA-affiliated institutions, is also known around the world for being the first and only SDA conference to have an ordained woman serving as its president. Dr. Sandra Roberts was elected in 2013 and re-elected by an overwhelming majority in 2018, despite objections from some at the General Conference.

Miller helped to convene and financially support other initiatives dedicated to the advancement of women as well. In 1995, after the vote in Utrecht, the late Dr. Madelyn Haldeman, then a professor of theology at La Sierra University’s School of Religion (now the H.M.S. Richards Divinity School), approached Miller about creating an academic center that could focus on the cause of women’s mobility and equality in the Church.

Miller seized the opportunity! She was interested in women and equality “in all facets,” she once told me. She sponsored the dinners that Haldeman hosted, where women thinkers on campus and in the community met together to discuss and plan the idea in more detail. In 1996, after La Sierra University’s Board of Directors formally approved the concept, Miller worked on the transition team and helped identify the first director for the Women’s Resource Center (Kit Watts, formerly the Associate Director of the Adventist Review). The Millers went on to serve jointly as co-Chairs of the WRC Advisory Council for almost two decades.

Miller was a mentor and friend to many Adventist women students, colleagues, and administrators. Unflagging in her commitment to gender equality, she believed women and minorities need to move “inward and upward” if they are going to influence the broader organization as a whole, be it a university or hospital institution or the Seventh-day Adventist denomination itself.

Miller’s legacy includes many tangible and intangible contributions she and her husband made to LLU, La Sierra University, and their parent institutions the SECC and Pacific Union Conference. Careers for Adventist women were directly advanced, if not also made possible, as a result of Miller’s work building and supporting Adventist institutions, advocating for policy changes, and pushing decision makers to appoint more women to leadership positions in the denominational structure and at the local church level.

Miller is survived by her daughters Sherry Miller Fay, a marriage and family therapist in Redlands, CA, and Shelly Miller, a professor of mechanical engineering and distinguished environmentalist at the University of Colorado-Boulder; two beloved sons-in-law, Bart Fay and Ken Leiden, respectively; four adored grandchildren: Drew, Emma, Luke, and Renee; a dear sister, Jackie Benson; and a host of colleagues, friends and students.  


Notes & References:

1. Katie Miller, “Children’s Center Receives Best Preschool Award,” in the Pacific Union Recorder (December 17, 2018), available online at The child development center Miller helped to establish on the campus of La Sierra University was closed shortly after the separation of Loma Linda University’s charter from La Sierra University in the early 1990s, its services being picked up by other organizations and the Alvord Public School District. The building now houses La Sierra’s Center for Near Eastern Archaeology.

A retrospective collection of photos of Miller’s life can be found online at


Sasha Ross served as director of the Women’s Resource Center and an assistant professor of global studies at La Sierra University from 2013-16 after working in international development, humanitarian relief, and foreign policy analysis for nearly a decade. She is currently a stay-at-home mother to her 3-year-old daughter Madeleine, while also working from home as the Director of Fundraising and Program Development for Glocally Connected, a non-profit organization that serves refugees throughout Riverside County.

Image courtesy of the author.


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