Howard County Times
Howard County

For Millie Bailey, a life of giving


ith her full head of black hair only lightly streaked with gray and her smooth complexion, Vivian "Millie" Bailey doesn't look a day over 70 - or is it 60?

But the activist is 92, and she celebrated her birthday Wednesday amid a flurry of nearly nonstop phone calls from well-wishers, making Feb. 3 seem like an unofficial holiday.


"I know two-thirds of the people in Columbia," said Bailey, a widow with no children who is called "Aunt Millie" by her many admirers. "And I have the biggest adopted family around."

Her quick and total recall of people, places and events makes listening to the revered and beloved 39-year Running Brook resident seem a bit like hearing a history book talk.


But a textbook can't charm you and joke about being one of State Sen. James N. Robey's "girlfriends." The legislator said she's got that reversed, that he's just one of her boyfriends.

"Millie plays this game with a lot of guys," teased Robey, a Democrat who was Howard's county executive before Ken Ulman and police chief before that. "And it was because of her encouragement that I ran for office in the first place, so she's the one to blame for where I am today."

Even former President Bill Clinton has taken part in the good-natured fun since the pair was introduced at a program held at Duke University in August.

"Mr. Clinton is the first president I've ever met," said Bailey, who makes no bones about being smitten. "He has that rare quality of making you feel like you're the most important person in the world.

"When he delivered his speech that day, he pointed at me and said, 'When I get to be 90, I want to be just like her,' " she recalled. He publicly suggested she could be his adopted grandmother and then followed up on that thought in a personal letter, one that Bailey laminated because she shows it off so frequently.

Friends pointed out to her that she's not old enough to fulfill that role for the 63-year-old Clinton. "But I told them, 'Never mind that - if he wants to be my adopted grandson, then that's what he'll be,' " she said with a laugh.

The walls of the dark-paneled family room in the home that she and her late husband, William, bought in December 1970 are plastered with certificates, citations and plaques from many of Howard County's most prominent organizations and politicians.

Her Feb. 3, 1918, birthday has been declared "Vivian Bailey Day" three separate times; the county library singled her out for a Choose Civility award in October; and Running Brook Elementary School threw a huge "This is Your Life" bash in her honor in May. Those are only some of the most recent tributes paid to the Washington, D.C., native who grew up in Oklahoma.


She has served on the Police Department's Citizens' Advisory Council since Robey appointed her in 1992, a move he called "the best thing I ever did." She joined the board at Howard County General Hospital in 1993 and is a trustee emeritus there.

Appointed to the Central Maryland Health Systems Agency in 1982, Bailey eventually served as chairwoman before leaving in 1993. She also served on the Maryland Health Resources Planning Commission, beginning in the early 1990s.

"While I was on the planning commission, we approved the first CAT scans and MRIs in the state," she said of the widely used diagnostic tests. "I am very proud of that.

"I've worked in health planning a very long time, though I have no background in health," said Bailey, who retired in 1975 as a manager of 1,100 employees at the Social Security Administration in Woodlawn, and served in the Women's Army Corps in the early 1940s.

She said she absorbs information "entirely by osmosis," something none of those who know her as a quick study are willing to believe.

Views on race, politics

Bailey has a great desire to meet President Barack Obama - not because he's African-American, but because they have so much in common, she said.


Not only did she live in Chicago for 24 years before moving to Columbia, but she and the president share the same interests in the areas of education, health and the military, she said.

To support the armed forces, she began sending homemade cookies at her own expense to American soldiers during Operation Desert Storm in 1991. Now a group of 12 or so helpers descends on her dining room every other month to pack 40 dozen fresh chocolate-chip and oatmeal-raisin cookies along with other purchased treats. Their mailing costs are now covered by the American Legion post in Ellicott City, she said.

A lifelong Democrat who is active on the political scene, Bailey said she nonetheless "votes for the person, not the party." She has, for example, always supported Margaret Rappaport, a Republican who has served as the county's clerk of the court since 1990.

And while on the subject of being politically correct, she made it a point to underscore that she uses neither the term "black" nor "African-American" to describe members of her race, preferring instead to use "Negro."

"We come in all colors, not just black, and if we're going to use 'African-American' then we should also say, 'Chinese-American' and 'Spanish-American,' and so on," she said.

When she's filling out a form, she crosses out the typical options for race and writes in "human," she said.

Limitless giving

Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a Columbia Democrat who has known Bailey for nearly four decades, described her as "a dear and loyal friend to many people" and the person who helped her realize she was ready for marriage back in 1993.

"I had been dating Lloyd [Knowles] for five years, and one day I whined to Millie about things that were bothering me about him," recalled Bobo, who was serving on the County Council at the time and later became county executive.

"She told me I didn't know what I wanted, and that I should go home and figure it out and then come back and talk to her again," she said. "Lloyd and I were married six months later."

Bobo called Bailey on her birthday from Annapolis in a three-way call with Knowles, also a former County Council member, so the pair could sing "Happy Birthday" over the phone, a ritual they carry out every year.

The students at nearby Running Brook Elementary were set to come together Friday at an awards ceremony to serenade the woman they refer to as their "guardian angel," said Principal Troy Todd.

Bailey offered a dozen years ago to help Running Brook Elementary in any way she could and now raises about $10,000 every year for her neighborhood school to help pay for field trips and other activities, he said.


"When I talk about Mrs. Bailey's impact, I often quote Gandhi," said Todd, who's in his second year as head administrator.

"We must be the change we want to see in the world," he said, paraphrasing a philosophy he believes Bailey personifies better than almost anyone. "She knows how to destroy barriers and bridge gaps. There's no limit to what she will do for us."

Bailey has a more pragmatic explanation: She doesn't like sitting around when there's so much work to be done.

And while following a diet low in starches and fats and staying physically active helps, Bailey said her secret to longevity is simple: "I just live every day to the highest and always find a way to give."

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