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Monday, March 21, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Elisabeth Miller, 79; Founded Washington Roadside Council

There are scores of stories about Elisabeth Carey Miller's lifelong hands-on fascination with plants and with making this city more beautiful.

But one story that illustrates what she was really about is told by her son, Winlock Miller of Bellevue:

"As founder of the Washington state Roadside Council in the early '60s, she was trying to get rid of billboards," her son said. "She hated signs because they blocked nature.

"A local paper had a contest to see who could collect the most campaign signs after the election. Mother thought that such a good idea she started collecting signs before the election was even over. As we drove around a curve picking up signs, we could see the guy ahead who was driving along putting them out. Mother just followed him at enough of a distance that he couldn't see us."

Mrs. Miller, who died March 14 at 79, had a garden containing 2,500 plants - including many rare species. The garden is featured in three books, including "America's Great Private Gardens."

"She loved to get her hands in the dirt and garden," said her business adviser, Frank Minton. "She told me, `If the entire world could have been paved over with concrete, my family would have seen more of me.' "

An energetic and thoughtful organizer, Mrs. Miller founded the Rhododendron Species Foundation, belonged to several other gardening groups, and was a popular lecturer. She helped select the plantings in Freeway Park, oversaw plantings along the Lake Washington Ship Canal, and helped plant traffic islands throughout the city.

Mrs. Miller also helped found the University of Washington Center for Urban Horticulture, and established, along with her late husband, attorney Pendleton Miller, her namesake ornamental-plant library in the center.

And she endowed a chair in her husband's name at the UW Law School.

"Betty Miller was one of the University of Washington's grandest benefactors," UW President William Gerberding said. "We will miss her infectious optimism and vision, her strong will, her wit, and her singular presence."

Minton said Mrs. Miller had severe hearing loss most of her life, and overcame that loss by learning to read lips.

"She was exceedingly bright," Minton said. "You'd be talking to her, and her mind would be racing ahead in all directions. She could be impatient. The worst thing you could do was tell her something she already knew. But she had a lovely sense of humor."

Born in Montana, where her father was government agent for the Kalispell tribe, Mrs. Miller went to school on the reservation and grew up with respect for the land.

She even learned a rain dance, which she sometimes did in later years for visitors at her Highlands home when Seattle had been too long without rain.

Other survivors include son Carey Miller of Seattle and grandchildren Michael, Steven, Jason and Emily.

Memorial services were scheduled for 1 p.m. today at St. Mark's Cathedral.

Remembrances may be made to UW Foundation and mailed to: Elisabeth Carey Miller Library, Center for Urban Horticulture, Mail Stop GS-15, University of Washington, Seattle, 98195.

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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