MICKEY MAURER Commentary: The classy dame is still classy

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“Pat Miller is a classy dame.” Michael S. Maurer, Indianapolis Star, Dec. 13, 2005

The above response to an Indianapolis Star reporter on the occasion of Pat Miller’s resignation as secretary of commerce was meant with all sincerity to be complimentary but was morphed by Indianapolis Star columnist John Ketzenberger into a slur on the order of Don Imus or Howard Stern.

The Star piled on with a letter to the editor from someone who does not even live in our community and an editorial implying that my choice of words was evidence I was too old for the job of secretary of commerce.

The brouhaha prompted philanthropist Gene Glick to write, “About John Ketzenberger’s column in the Dec. 20 Indianapolis Star –my immediate reaction: Oh, for Pete’s sake! In the first place, any woman who would be offended by your complimentary comment should turn down her sensitivity level more than just a few notches. And furthermore, doesn’t Ketzenberger have anything more important to say on the first page of the Business Section?”

Pat Miller loved the sobriquet. For a long time, she signed her notes and letters to me simply, “CD.” But then, Pat Miller is a classy dame.

Twenty-five years ago, Pat and her friend Barbara Baekgaard felt women needed better choices in luggage, handbags and accessories. At that time, they were operating a wallpaper business, which they called “Up Your Wall.” Tired of all that paste in their hair, they shut it down and began manufacturing handbags and luggage items from the basement of Barbara’s home.

Vera Bradley, named after Barbara’s mother, is now a nationally and internationally recognized brand. Pat explained to me that a company named after her mother, Wilma Polito, probably wouldn’t have had the same impact.

Reflective of its founders, Vera Bradley is known for innovative designs, quality work and dependable customer service. The company’s annual sales in 2006 exceeded $100 million, and the growth is staggering. Offerings now include quality furniture and other products bearing the Vera Bradley logo.

Among many honors, Pat Miller received the Robert C. McDermand Medal for Excellence in Entrepreneurship from DePauw University and was named business leader of the year by the Indiana Chamber of Commerce in 1997. According to Gov. Mitch Daniels, “Pat Miller is one of the great business success stories in our state.”

A classy dame is more than a business success. Pat and Barbara established the Vera Bradley Foundation for Breast Cancer in 1998. This foundation is committed to eradicating breast cancer by providing financial support for research. The foundation has already pledged more than $10 million, much of which was used to support the Vera Bradley Chair in Oncology at the Indiana University School of Medicine and to establish the Vera Bradley Center for Breast Cancer Research, a multidisciplinary program that includes basic science and clinical investigators.

Pat Miller has a strong sense of community. The distribution center for Vera Bradley is in Pat’s home, Fort Wayne, where Vera Bradley provides more than 300 jobs. Construction on an adjoining headquarters building will begin next year.

Although Pat had no political aspirations, she was enthralled by the governor’s ideas for economic development. She campaigned for Daniels and upon his election was named the first secretary of commerce in the state of Indiana. Shortly thereafter, I agreed to serve as president of the Indiana Economic Development Corp. and we began our business association.

It was a tough posting for Pat. Not only did she have the normal responsibilities of this important office, but she continued to maintain her home in Fort Wayne, from where she cheerfully commuted.

Pat was my first boss in 30 years. She has the ability to approach and solve problems with spirit and optimism. Her management style is inclusive. She comports herself with compassion and style. She was always game.

Pat Miller will be embarrassed by this column. She is a classy dame, but not the only one in Indiana. In fact, I am having difficulty winnowing down to 30 a list of women to feature in a book I am writing titled, “Classy Dames of Indiana.” No foolin’. If you have a candidate, or wish to be on the advance-copy list, please let me know.

Maurer is a shareholder in IBJ Media Corp., which owns Indianapolis Business Journal. To comment on this column, send e-mail to mmaurer@ibj.comor go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.com.

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