There have been countless nominees and more than 30 Women of Achievement winners at Zonta Jefferson City’s Yellow Rose Luncheon during the last 19 years. Every one is deserving of recognition as they are the leaders, the volunteers, the educators and the unsung heroes for women, children and multiple residents of the capital city and Mid-Missouri. HER Magazine caught up with two of these Women of Achievement recipients: Marylyn DeFeo, one of the first and also Lifetime Achievement award winner, and Dr. Miriam Fuller, 2014 honoree.
Dr. Miriam Fuller stood in front of hundreds of guests at the 2014 Yellow Rose Luncheon, speaking of her life and her appreciation for just being honored as one of the Women of Achievement.
As she neared the end of her speech, Miriam decided to share an important poem by Edgar Albert Guest that her mother had recited to her and she had often shared with her three sons – the words of “Myself.”
“I have to live with myself and so; I want to be fit for myself to know. I want to be able as days go by, always to look myself straight in the eye; I don’t want to stand with the setting sun; and hate myself for the things I have done. … I never can hide myself from me. I see what others may never see; I know what others may never know, I never can fool myself and so; whatever happens I want to be, self respecting and conscience free.’ Isn’t that beautiful?” Fuller said after reciting part of the poem.
“I looked up and said, ‘Thanks, Mom,’ because she taught it to me and has remained very important in my life. It brought the house down,” Miriam added with a giggle as she recalled her speech.
Miriam’s life has been full of challenges she has overcame, contributions as a teacher, librarian and business owner that have enriched children’s and young adults’ lives, and accomplishments of published works, awards and honors that exemplify her years of service to her community.
Miriam has made history, made on impact and made herself a humble symbol of what a women of achievement truly is.
Miriam grew up in Big Stone Gap, Virginia, when segregation was commonplace throughout the South.
Her brother attended school, but Miriam, who was determined to learn, was allowed to go. Graduating at 16, she earned a bachelor’s degree in library science from Virginia State College. In 1953, she returned to her hometown to work as a librarian at Bland High School and after a few years was asked to become the school’s typing teacher.
With only one year of typing experience under her belt, Miriam decided to take classes to improve her skills and properly prepare her students. She asked to attend Clinch Valley College in 1960, an all-white, segregated school at the time. She decided to approach the teacher first, Emma McCrary, about taking the class.
“She was from the north and didn’t have a problem with me taking classes,” Miriam said. McCrary encouraged the college president to accept Miriam, and she became the first African-American student to attend what is now known as the University of Virginia College at Wise. One student complained about Miriam’s enrollment, but the president of the school didn’t let that detour his decision.
“The student asked the president what he was going to do about letting me take classes. The president said, ‘Is her money green?’ The student said ‘Well, yes.’ The president said, ‘Then I’ll take her,’” she recalled with a smile.
Now with the skills needed to teach typing, she taught her students a variety of abilities that allowed them to take tests and get jobs, including positions at the U.S. Department of Labor and also the Pentagon.
“I had such terrific kids,” Miriam said. “I had a student who is now retired tell me when I was teaching that I was hard on her. However, she recently sent me a lovely birthday card and necklace, writing that she was glad I was hard on her. She appreciated everything I did for her and it helped. That was so nice.”
In 2004, Miriam was named an outstanding educator, author and history maker for her contributions and courage at the University of Virginia College at Wise and was inducted into the Southwest Virginia Museum Historical State Parks “Walk of Fame” in 2013.
Miriam has always loved children, which is what encouraged her to teach and become a librarian.
She did both of those jobs for more than a decade in her home state before she and her husband Foster, who she met while attending college, moved to Urbana, Illinois. For the few years they lived there, she worked as a librarian at Leal School, serving as a demonstration center for the state that depicted a learning center and featured an independent study program.
Miriam also attained her master’s degree in library science in 1968 from the University of Illinois in Urbana, where she also served as an instructor teaching operation and development of libraries in 1969.
While in serving as a librarian in Urbana, Miriam recalled the incident that led her down the path of writing. A young girl came crying to her about not being able to find a book to read. Perplexed, Miriam spoke with her teacher about why she didn’t have a book in her library for the child to read.
“She said, ‘There is a reason; she reads with a certain vocabulary,’” Miriam said, thinking about what she could do to help. “I told her, ‘I am going to write a book she can read tonight.’”
Miriam stayed up until 3 a.m., writing a book with the vocabulary the child could read. The teacher was astounded Miriam did this and had the school secretary use big print to finalize it and bound it with construction paper. Miriam placed it on the library book shelf and the little girl was elated to read her book.
Later, Miriam ended up publishing a whole set of books using that vocabulary. In fact from 1970-1986, she published four sets of educational books for children: a 12-book Literature Appreciation Kit, “Reading Enrichment Books Level 5,” “Top of the News: Hi-tech Trade Books for Young People” and “Show-Me Libraries: Hi-tech Trade Books for Young People.”
Miriam had a desire to write another educational book. This time it was about a notable woman she admired, Phillis Wheatley.
“When I was in high school, there was a teacher that taught me literature and she taught me about Phillis Wheatley, who is an African-American poet,” Miriam said. “I became very interested in her.”
Coming to America as a slave, Wheatley was sold on the block to the Wheatley family, who thankfully saw how intelligent she was and treated her nicely.
“She was a slave but ended up becoming a wonderful poet,” Miriam said, encouraging her to write poetry of her own. “I decided to write a book about her, and it’s called ‘Phillis Wheatley: America’s First Black Poetess.’”
In 1971, the Fullers moved to Jefferson City. Foster was also heavily involved in education, leading the technology and industrial education department at Lincoln University for about 25 years. Miriam started her career in Jefferson City as a children’s librarian at the Thomas Jefferson Library in 1971.
About a year after she moved to Mid-Missouri, Miriam became an instructor at the University of Missouri in Columbia. She taught classes relating to children and libraries and also was the director of TAP, the Teacher Aide Trainee Program for developmentally disabled young adults from 1977-1978. She taught at MU until 1989, the same year she earned her doctorate degree in curriculum and instruction with an emphasis on early childhood education and supporting special education and library science.
Teaching college, researching and writing trade books for children, and earning her doctorate is a full plate for a single person. However, Miriam was also raising her three sons alongside her husband, volunteering in the community and starting a new venture that aided young children, the Preschool Development Center. In fact, she not only founded this center in 1974, but opened two sites that ran successfully for many years.
Miriam retired in 1996, but she did not stop helping children, volunteering or serving her community. For many years at First Christian Church, Miriam had been an active volunteer. Outside of serving as an elder, lay minister and board member, she was involved in the East School mentoring program, acted as the Buddy Pack program leader and worked as a volunteer receptionist.
Miriam remains close to her three sons – Foster “Chip” Fuller Jr., Gary Jeremiah Morris Fuller and Drew Abram Fuller. Her oldest son Chip, who is autistic, lives in a group home and makes sure to call his mom every morning before he goes to work, Miriam said. Her “baby boy” Drew is an artist living in Columbia, and Gary is a writer and game developer, living with and taking care of his mother.
Gary has written several books including “Making Money at Home: A Quick Guide” and “Lady Lawbreaker,” both of which Miriam edited. Currently, Miriam is excited to assist her sons in a production business Gary and Drew are collaborating on where Drew utilizes his artistic talents and Gary develops games and writes additional books.
“Then we are going to add to it, taking it one project at a time,” she said. “It has been really nice to work with my sons.”
From her continued service both during her careers and following retirement, Miriam has earned a multitude of awards and honors including Outstanding Minority Business Owner Award in 1989, Outstanding Christian Woman Award, Church Women United Valiant Woman Award in 2015, First Christian Lifetime Elder in 2015, AARP Community Service Award in 2017, profiled in the book “Success in Hill Country” by Amy Clark and Zonta Women of Achievement in 2014.
Miriam has appreciated the honors and awards she has earned, however, she believes that her faith in God, keeping her heart right and not jumping to conclusions – her own words of wisdom she lives by – have kept her happy, healthy and humble despite the pains of racism and adversity she faced.
“My parents were God-fearing, loving people who encouraged me to have that continuous relationship with God,” Miriam said. “It helps you deal with life better if you have that faith in God.”
Like the poem “Myself” explains, Miriam said keeping your faith, being thankful and being humble is the best advice she can offer to other women.
“Keep others in mind. If something good happens to you, try to see that something good happens to other people,” Miriam said. “If you follow God, it is for real. If God says love your neighbor as yourself, you need to practice that. It makes yours and everyone’s life easier and better.”