After 40 years as an attorney in family law in Belleville, Barbara Rogalle Miller is taking down her shingle and retiring.
The office in downtown Belleville will close as of Dec. 1 and she will spend a month cleaning it out. Then, she said attorneys Bryon Kelley and John Evanchek will be moving in to expand their legal practice now based in Canton.
Miller is not selling her practice or her building, but she expects some of her clients will transfer over to the new firm.
She has been contacting clients to pick up their files and they’ve been coming.
“It’s the right decision at the right time,” said Miller, who turned 80 last spring.
She said she plans to learn how to seek grants for all the organizations she has worked with over the years. “I know I can do it,” she said.
She also plans to do some traveling.
“It’s been wonderful to practice law in my community,” Miller said. “I had so many friends, knew so many people from Rogalle’s, who became clients and continued as friends.”
She referred to her family’s bar and restaurant on Haggerty Road at I-94 which she ran after her parents died.
“The credentials in being an attorney gives you standing. I’ve been able to take on issues in the community.”
She said her family law practice included divorce and custody, real estate, and probate cases.
“My background as a teacher made me very aware of families and to be sure to make decisions in the best interests of the children,” she said.
She said she regularly referred clients to counselors she trusted to go beyond what she could do, such as psychiatric advice.
She said she spent lots of time helping clients to come to an understanding of their situations, not to change or reform it, but to come to an understanding of what it is.
“I’m going to miss all the traffic and activity and exchange,” she said, noting she will continue to be active in the Belleville Area Council for the Arts, the Wayne County Arts Council, and the Detroit Institute of Arts Authority Board. She plans to help promote the DIA’s recently announced millage request.
“It’s been a huge blessing to have Cathy Johnson for 26 years,” she said of her assistant. “We’ve never had an argument. She is very considerate, competent, and has tremendous follow-through. She’s staying with the new people… Cathy has been wonderful, incredible, outstanding.”
Miller said she was born at the University of Michigan Hospital after her family moved to Belleville.
Her grandmother moved to Belleville in 1917 after getting into trouble with Detroit Police after she beat up an officer with a broom. The officer was kicking a drunk boy in the head as he was collapsed on the ground, and after telling the officer she knew the boy and would watch over him, the officer continued kicking the boy and she beat him off with her broom.
The Black Maria wagon came, drawn by horses, and she was taken off to jail. The neighbors made such a fuss at the police department that they let her off. She had eight children and a green card and decided Detroit was no place to live. They moved to Belleville because other relatives were there.
Miller said all the family members worked on her grandparents’ farm.
She said her parents moved to Belleville and bought a dance hall, Edison Lake Gardens. She said her father was certain Prohibition would end and two years later it did and he got a liquor license. She said the family lived above the bar and when she was four years old — in 1943 — it burned down. She and her two brothers and parents stayed with the Pryzstups, who were relatives, all living together in a small house on Savage Road.
Her father built the home on Harmony Lane in which she still resides.
Miller attended the Belleville schools through the eighth grade and then went to a parochial school, St. Mary’s Academy in Monroe. There were 110 students in her class.
Then she attended Michigan State, where her brother Mickey was a student, but it was too large for her and after two years she transferred to Marygrove College where she earned a bachelor of arts in English and then got a Ford Foundation Scholarship to the University of Notre Dame for her master’s degree in teaching in 1961.
She taught in Elkhart and South Bend, Indiana, and those were “the happiest days of my life.” But, things changed.
“My dad’s health was failing and he wanted me home, so I came home,” Miller recalls. She then taught at Birmingham Seaholm, which was closer.
“My dad opened the bar and I came back to help my folks and take care of my brother Lawrence,” she recalled. Lawrence had special needs and Miller took care of him until he died.
She turned down several opportunities that arose, including an offer at age 26 to be head of the English Department at a top-rated school district in Indiana and another offer to be head librarian at Henry Ford Community College, while she was still in library school.
Although both positions were very appealing, “I had to do what I was doing,” she said of helping her family. “So many people were counting on me. I couldn’t veer off.”
While running the bar, she went to librarian school at the University of Michigan and graduated in 1971.
After Title IX was passed banning discrimination of women and minorities, her mother said she should go to law school, since she always wanted that.
Miller said she told her mother that, at age 32, she would be 40 by the time she became a lawyer. She recalls her mother replying, “Well, you’re going to be 40 anyway.”
In those days it was affordable to explore different careers, Miller said, noting at the U of M it was $3,000 a semester and now it is $60,000 a year and students come away with an incredible debt.
She got accepted at the University of Michigan Law School in the summer of 1976 and graduated in December of 1979.
Miller said Donna Hall was running the bar for her while she was in law school and was Miller’s accountant. “She was brilliant,” Miller said of Hall.
After she got out of law school Miller first practiced with a firm in Wayne and then decided to open her own practice in Belleville.
“The first call I made was to First Step,” she recalled, telling them she would have lots of time and was volunteering to all the women who need legal help at no charge, but they would have to pay their own fees.
She said she did that for three years until the big law firms got into the service.
“It was a wonderful experience,” Miller recalled “I met so many wonderful people.”
She said she had four or five years of experience by then and the First Step director said since she had been doing so much work without charge, she had a big case for Miller. She said the woman with the big case had a husband with lots of money and, “I got paid.”
The daughter of the woman client helped with the case. She was a graduate of a university in Ohio and was so motivated by the case, that she went to law school and called Miller to tell her about it.
Miller said she encouraged people to go back to school and get counseling and take the legal challenge as a sea change in their lives.
“They can have a good life. You don’t have to be a victim,” she said.
While running Rogalle’s, before law school, Miller met Bob Miller, an engineer, who worked at a company out of Wayne and was at Rogalle’s for an office party. He was a former CIA agent. A year and a half later they married and Barbara gave birth to their son Philip. But, the marriage didn’t work out.
“He was very smart, a brilliant mathematician. Phil is brilliant with numbers,” she said.
Their divorce was final during her first year of law school and she had a live-in nanny, Olla, to take care of Philip and her brother Lawrence. “God sent her to me,” Miller said. “She was so nice.”
Miller recalled that her mother belonged to the Book of the Month Club and each month bought a book for her, some for the children, and an art book. She said her mother would listen to the radio and she and Lawrence also would listen and page through the art books for hours.
“We didn’t know what we were looking at, but it was beautiful,” Miller said.
One of her efforts in Belleville has been to bring culture to the community. The Belleville Area Music Committee came first, in 1988 or ’89, where she brought music each Sunday to Victory Park.
She said the project received a lot of support. She was able to raise the money needed to pay the musical groups that performed.
This showed there was really an interest in culture in the community, she said. The late Chesley Odom was here and “we talked and asked why not start an art group?” The Belleville Area Council for the Arts was formed. Miller said they planned music at his place on Main Street, an art show and Art Smart in the schools.
As an aside, Miller said the 100 Art Smart portfolios are now at the high school library and she would like to take them to Girlstown for classes and then have the DIA take the residents on a field trip to the DIA.
“It was wonderful,” Miller said of Art Smart. But, eventually the number of volunteers fell and the classes stopped. It took preparation to teach the art and time in the middle of the day to go to the schools, so participating was quite a commitment.
“I am so fortunate to be a well-educated person and it all came out of this community,” Miller said. “I need to go to the DIA. I need to know about the art.
“I have a lot of connections now and I try to bring that back here,” she said.
She said New Boston is thinking of having music in the park and she linked them up with Ken Voigt, who has successfully run the Music Lakeside program in Belleville. And, Voigt and BeeBee Singleton recently put on a new Gospel Fest program in Sumpter Township that will be presented again next year.
“I enjoy what I’m doing and I throw myself into it,” Miller said of all her projects.
Then, she said, she has yet to talk about the politics in her life.
“I took on the University of Michigan,” Miller said, recalling how furious she was over Van Buren Township’s plan to lease the 100 acres of Van Buren Park to the U of M. After much effort, she got it down to just the area around the boathouse and, “We’re supposed to get the boathouse after 25 years as rent.” She figures that date must be coming up and she’ll have the time to get the paperwork and pursue the issue.
Then there was her part in the battle with Wayne County over the Belleville Bridge. She recalls they were going to take out the bridge completely while replacing it, like they did later in New Boston.
She remembers that she, Mayor Glenn Silvenis, and City Manager Bob Herron went to a recommended condemnation attorney and he told them what they really needed was an economic expert to tell what devastation to the town there would be if the bridge was shut down.
Miller said they threatened to sue the county if the county didn’t give the city a temporary bridge — and they did get the county to leave the old bridge in place while the new one was built.
“We paid $13,000,” Miller said of the project.
Miller recalled her travels to China for five years to sell dental products. She had a friend who was an expert in dental equipment who learned there were no dentists in China. She came to Miller to set up a company and Miller became a part of the company.
They brought U of M dentists to China to talk about dental health and China paid for the experts. She and her friend sold products in the foyer of the meetings and got orders. But China cancelled the orders because they didn’t want American products. They wanted to make them in China.
She said she and her friend stopped their project, but she became very interested in Chinese art.
In looking back at being one of the first women to take part in the doors opened by Title IX, Miller said she was in one of the first classes with numbers of women — 110 — at the University of Michigan. This is more women than had graduated in the previous 100 years, she said.
“We were pioneers,” she recalled.
Also, she was in the first class with women at Notre Dame. Again, a pioneer.
Miller is known for her bright ideas and is always busy with new projects. She was responsible for starting the local League of Women Voters, is active in the Democratic Party, served on the Van Buren Public Schools Board of Education, is one of the founders of the Belleville-Area Independent, brought Missoula Children’s Theater back to Belleville, helped form the VBT Cable Commission and wrote the public access policies and procedures, and hounded the Belleville Area District Library Board to record its meetings until it started video recording the meetings and putting the videos on YouTube. And, more.
Miller also is a breast-cancer survivor.
After 40 years as an attorney in family law in Belleville, Barbara Rogalle Miller is taking down her shingle and retiring.