Women’s work: After a career in corrections, Durango’s Tekla Miller tries her hand at writing

Though Durango author Tekla Dennison Miller has written three fulllength books (“A Bowl of Cherries,” “The Warden Wore Pink,” and ‘Life Sentences”) and her next, “Inevitable Sentences,” comes out in January, she never planned to be a writer.

She thought she’d have a corporate career, after graduating from college in the ’60s, moving to Michigan with her husband, and taking a position that put her “on the fast track to management” with the telephone company.

Six months later, she hated the job, and her performance showed it. Michigan Bell let her go. On a whim, she applied for what she thought was a juvenile probation officer’s spot with the Department of Corrections.

Not quite. The probation officer would work with men. Moreover, she was the first woman anyone had considered for the position, and EEO was demanding that a woman be hired.

The petite Dennison-Miller lets out a hearty laugh. “They asked me some very unusual questions that would definitely not pass muster today,” she says in a deep voice that exudes confidence. ”I was very mouthy. I went home to my husband and said, ‘There’s no way they’re going to hire me.’”

She got the job that night, and worked for the Michigan Department of Corrections for 20 years, the last six as the first female warden in the system, with responsibility for two prisons, one a maximum-security facility outside Detroit.

The recollection makes her roar with laughter. “The best thing that ever happened to me was getting fired from that (phone company) job.”

Then a young female prison officer was raped. Dennison-Miller’s bosses responded to the incident as “some kind of feminine issue, and not as an issue of security.” Furious, she left corrections to speak out for women working in prisons, and for prison reform.

Moving to Durango with her husband, she began traveling the country lecturing. Her agenda still did not include writing, but people who heard her speak begged her to create books on her experiences.

“I hadn’t written much more than my monthly reports, and my budget.” She lets out another big laugh.

Yet, the idea appealed. A friend suggested she take creative-writing classes. She also learned to type because she had been “one of these ’60s feminists” who refused to touch a typewriter. She tackled word-processing.

That done, she sat down and wrote her first book, ‘The Warden Wore Pink,” a memoir that began with the rape, and then chronicled Dennison- Miller’s career, including humorous and bittersweet moments, such as the shock of a young reporter from the Detroit Free Press coming to interview the warden. Expecting a man, he asked when the warden would arrive.

“I think she’s already here,” Dennison-Miller replied, introducing herself. Glancing at her clothes and noting their color, she added, “Real wardens do wear pink.” The incident spawned the name of the book.

When she finished the first draft, she sent it to her brother to read, making edits based on his suggestions. In 1996, Biddle Publishing Company bought the manuscript. Editor Julie Zimmerman added more ideas for shaping the story.

“I was lucky with the first one, because I knew nothing.”

In 2002, she wrote her second memoir, “A Bowl of Cherries,” about her childhood in East Syracuse, N.Y. Growing up poor taught her to respect herself, work hard, and fight for what she wanted.

Her mother never went beyond eighth grade, but valued schooling, telling Dennison-Miller and her sister and brother to strive for college and be what they wanted to be. “She dosed it out with our oatmeal,” Dennison-Miller laughs.

Trouble hit when she turned 9. Her father died of injuries sustained while working for the railroad. Her mother struggled to keep the family going, fought depression, and committed suicide when Dennison-Miller was 13. Her sister guided her through her teens.

Dennison-Miller survived because she always felt loved and always felt she had a safe place to go. Her sense of humor also saved her.

After bringing out “Bowl of Cherries” with Publish America, Dennison-Miller came to believe that Print-on-Demand books will be the future of publishing for economic reasons.

She continued to write. “Life Sentences” appeared in 2005 from Medallion Press, the company which will debut ‘Inevitable Sentences.’

In addition to fiction, Dennison- Miller has published nonfiction articles in numerous publication, including Corrections Today magazine, the Durango Herald, and the Detroit Free Press Sunday Magazine.

She offers writing and motivational workshops; and speaks on issues ranging from women prisoners and their children, to prison programs that work. She has presented talks to groups around the nation.

Dennison-Miller “used to get up at crack of dawn (every day) and write.” She still writes almost every day, but squeezes it in between other activities.

“I write whatever I want to that day, and then the next day I read what I wrote.” She believes that approach sharpens her perspective on her words. “Hopefully you’ll find all the funny stuff that shouldn’t be there, and the good stuff that should be.”

Her site is www.teklamiller.com.

From Arts & Entertainment, August 2008.