Ola Babcock Miller was one of the state's most distinguished public servants. Today she is best known as "The Mother of the Iowa Highway Patrol."
Her consuming passion was to reduce deaths and improve safety on the state's roads.
In 1932, Miller was elected the state's first female secretary of state, and in ensuing years became one of Iowa's most popular elected officials.
Viola Babcock was born March 1, 1871, on a farm in Washington County. When she was 5, her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Nathan Babcock, moved their family to the community of Washington, where she attended public schools. She also attended Washington Academy for four years, as well as Iowa Wesleyan College at Mount Pleasant.
As a young woman, Miller taught in rural schools in her home county, then married newspaper editor Alex Miller, who in addition to running the small weekly Washington Democrat was active in the Democratic Party. In 1926 he ran unsuccessfully for governor.
Ola Miller enjoyed life at home, raising her daughters Barbara and Ophelia — a son died in infancy — and taking time for her favorite hobby, painting. She entered "paintings and pickles" in county fairs.
When her husband died of a heart attack in 1927, Miller continued an active role in the Democratic Party, traveling the state and speaking out for social reforms.
She had already been active in the suffrage movement, as well as the Daughters of the American Revolution and the women's society P.E.O.
When she found that she was running for office — as a reward from the Democratic Party — Miller never dreamed she could win. But she told friends she thought it would please her deceased husband and she called her campaign "a martyrdom to the cause."
But Miller was swept into office in 1932 on the coattails of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, despite having won by fewer than 3,000 votes. She had no trouble being re-elected in 1934 and 1936.
After her initial victory, a reporter interviewed the new secretary of state and noted: "It is obvious Mrs. Miller is nobody's fool."
Saddened and motivated by the highway death of a good friend's son, Miller began to advocate tirelessly for a uniformed state road patrol.
"Enforcement was not enough," Des Moines Tribune reporter Lillian McLaughlin wrote in her 1975 series "Iowa Women Ahead of Their Time."
"She spoke constantly throughout the state . . . driving home the gospel of safe and sane driving."
Without official authority to do so, Miller initiated the patrol on Aug. 1, 1934, by organizing a group of 15 motor vehicle inspectors who helped reduce the highway accident rate by stopping violators.
In May 1935, then-Gov. Clyde Herring signed the law creating a 50-member patrol within the state's motor vehicle department, which operated under Miller.
In the patrol's first days, up to 5,000 Depression-stricken men applied for the jobs, which initially paid $100 per month. The patrol chief made $200 monthly, and his assistant earned $165 per month. The men trained rigorously at Camp Dodge. By 1938, the patrol had 150 uniformed officers.
Reporter McLaughlin said Miller "had an ability — and used it — to place capable men in office. She demanded results from them and refrained from interfering with petty administrative details."
Iowa historian George Mills said the patrol became such a success that polls showed it was only "second to God in public esteem."
Ironically, early polling got a nudge because of Miller. Her son-in-law, George Gallup, who was married to Ophelia, saw the importance of political polling when Miller first ran for office. He later became nationally known for the polling techniques that he created.
Miller pushed herself, and illness proved her downfall when she continued to go on the road to fulfill a speaking engagement despite having influenza and a temperature.
During treatment at Iowa Methodist Hospital in Des Moines, she requested that her "boys" not send flowers, but they did in great quantities, and she commented that it was "the first time they've ever been guilty of insubordination."
She died of pneumonia Jan. 25, 1937.
Statehouse offices were closed for her funeral, and services were attended by 1,500 people at the Washington Methodist Church. Included among the mourners were the 55 highway patrolmen who served as her pallbearers and honor guard who stood by her bronze casket.
On the first-year anniversary of her death, a delegation of patrolmen, wearing black arm bands, put flowers on her grave in Washington.
Miller was one of the first four women to be inducted into the Iowa Women's Hall of Fame in 1975. In 1999, the Iowa Legislature, prompted by the Iowa Commission on the Status of Women, authorized the renaming of the stately Old Historical Building at East Grand Avenue and East 12th Street as the Ola Babcock Miller State Office Building. The State Library and other state offices are housed in the building following a $20 million renovation.
The dedication of the restored structure was held in 2002, and a plaque honoring Miller was unveiled.