Della Miller fled from the Dust Bowl as a child, lived in a humble shack in Sebastopol and finally became financially secure as a West County hospital and school nurse while her husband ran a milk processing plant.
A longtime Sebastopol resident, Miller died of pneumonia on Dec. 10 at a Florida hospital after falling ill during a cruise with her daughter.
“She knew what it was like to be poor,” said her son, Mark A. Miller of Loleta.
Born in a small town near Wichita, Kan., in 1923, Miller helped with farm chores as a child. Her family was prepared to move to California in 1936, as part of the mass migration from the dust storm-ravaged Great Plains, when Miller broke her arm in an auto accident and spent a week in a hospital, her son said.
The family, including her parents, sister and cat, eventually piled into their car and drove to Sebastopol when Miller was 13.
But it was in the Kansas hospital that Miller formed her ambition to become a nurse, her son said.
In Sebastopol, the family lived in a two-room shack with a privy out back. Miller attended elementary school and graduated from Analy High School in 1941.
She enrolled in the nursing program at St. Francis Hospital in San Francisco, which provided her with room and board but little else. Miller's family could only give her 25 cents a month, not even enough to replace the stockings she wore until they developed holes.
Fortunately, some of her nursing school classmates lent her their used stockings, Mark Miller said.
It was at St. Francis Hospital that Miller first got to use indoor plumbing. “She thought that was pretty special,” her son said.
The nurse training program, for single women only, was run “like boot camp,” he said, with no dating or socializing allowed.
After completing the program, Miller moved to Corpus Christi, Tex., to be with her high school sweetheart, William A. Miller, who joined the Marine Corps and served as a flight instructor during World War II.