Backstory: A giver behind the giving

Whether it's lepers, Arab sheikhs, or Nobel Laureates, this humanitarian knows how to work a room ... or a village.

After 12 hours in a dusty Land Rover, being bumped and jostled on a dirt road deep in the Senegal bush, Judy Miller stepped out into a remote village to meet with local chieftains. It had been a difficult drive, and she didn't know what to expect.

As director of the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize, which bestows $1.5 million annually to an organization working to alleviate human suffering, her mission was simply to evaluate one of the nonprofit nominees for the world's most generous humanitarian prize.

This Senegal program had been working to improve the lives of women – and this was an issue long at the center of Ms. Miller's own personal and professional life. So – despite her physical exhaustion and the overwhelming press of hospitality (a "Welcome, Judy Miller" banner, and women and children dancing and singing in greeting) – she was searching for subtle ways she could emphasize the importance of dignity for women.

An opportunity to link her long-held, hard-fought values with the cultural traditions of her hosts arose as imams pointed out a new village amenity. "When I heard they had just dedicated a new well for the women in the villages so they wouldn't have to walk miles to retrieve water, I complimented them for following Islam," says Miller. She was familiar with Islamic culture, having been one of the first Western women to work openly in Saudi Arabia. And when she mentioned surasfrom the Koran, which praised the dignity of women, the leaders beamed.

As a lifelong Republican activist and pioneering female executive, Miller doesn't fit the stereotype of a humanitarian worker. While she does travel throughout the developing world, from the slums of Lima, Peru, to leper colonies in India, she has a reputation as one of the most skilled executives on the often-unseen side of humanitarian work. She's a master, say colleagues, of the organizational efficiency and political subtlety often lacking in efforts to help the poor.

Indeed, most experts in the field say, the Hilton Prize is one of the premier awards of its kind because of Miller's efforts to make it more than a $1.5 million handout. Since 1997, she has been refining the evaluation process that whittles down 250 nominations to about 15 per year. She coordinates an on-site evaluation process that results in a 40-page assessment of each nominee. Miller herself usually conducts three site visits a year. Assessments are then given to an independent jury that, through Miller's efforts, includes Nobel laureates, former government ministers, and other world leaders.

Miller has also turned the awards dinner into a day-long global humanitarian symposium that includes decisionmakers from international government and human rights organizations.

"I really admire that she's able to engage the people we are trying to bring to our [awards] dinners – the Vaclav Havels of the world, the Dalai Lamas of the world, people with extreme visibility who would typically be hard to entice to be a part of what we are doing," says Steven Hilton, president and CEO of the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, which administers the prize. "And Judy has a way of approaching them, because of her personality, that encourages them to want to be a part of what we're doing."

Indeed, the strength of Miller's personality, which combines the qualities of a tough, dogged executive with the values of a committed feminist and humanitarian, lies in her own quiet dignity. Diminutive in size, her hair a blond-tinted gray after nearly seven decades, she walks gently and deliberately, belying her tenacity.

Before becoming director of the Hilton Prize, Miller had achieved more than most women in her field as a communications specialist. In 1975, she was one of the first female executives to work in a major Japanese corporation, the Suntory brewing company. In 1981, she was retained by the Saudi government to assist with the Third Islamic Summit Conference, which led to a public relations job with the King Faisal Foundation. At her insistence, they allowed her to work openly, without wearing a hijab, in a notoriously closed society.

"Judy is a role model to me as a woman," says Zainab Salbi, founder of Women for Women International, the winner of the 2006 Prize awarded in October. "A woman who was revolutionary in her own way – way before my generation – so I really look up to her as she crossed boundaries. For me, as someone who works with other cultures, learning from Judy is an example of how I live my life. She doesn't compromise her integrity, who she is and her beliefs, and she believes that this can actually coincide with other cultures."

This integrity has long made Miller stand out among her peers – even from the competitive males around her. "Women have another language, and a lot of women adapt to the man's language when they are in positions like this," says Liv Ullmann, the Swedish actress and vice president of the International Rescue Committee. "But Judy doesn't do that ... if she feels warmth or sadness, she is very open about sharing that with you."

Yet, through the Hilton program, Miller has found a way to address lifelong concerns: children without homes and women without dignity. Miller's father left the family when she was an infant. Her mother struggled, working as a secretary in Los Angeles, to care for two children. When World War II began, she placed Judy and her brother in private boarding homes, common then when many mothers had to work while husbands were away. Miller hopped from one stranger's home to another for 12 years.

One of the most formative moments of her life happened in ninth grade. A straight-A student, Miller was elected the first female class president. The principal didn't believe a girl should hold the post, but he was away on sabbatical and his rule wasn't enforced. Later, when Miller's journalism teacher, a man, named her editor of the student newspaper, the principal ordered another to be chosen, saying a girl couldn't be both class president and editor. But the teacher refused, saying there'd be no editor, if not Judy.

"The fact that [the principal] didn't want me to be president made me want to set records of accomplishments," Miller says. "Yet my journalism teacher probably renewed my faith in men...."

Her mother was also very involved in Republican politics – so involved that she was offered the job as Vice President Richard Nixon's personal secretary. She declined to move to Washington, which would have disrupted her children's lives further, after years apart. (The job was eventually taken by Rosemary Woods. "My mom could have erased the tapes!" Miller says with a laugh.)

Politics became a focus of Miller's life in her teens, and she never stopped to attend college. She worked as the personal secretary for California Republican Sen. Bill Knowland in the late '50s, and followed him to the Oakland Tribune, which his family owned. There she began a career in communications and public relations. She married. Having three daughters, she took time off from work – though she worked for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment.

But widowed in the early 1980s, she returned to work and to the path that made her a pioneer in her field. Now, she says, "I'm in the most privileged position – everyone wants my job. I can see how people live; I can see it for myself, see the suffering, yet be inspired by these incredible people," she says. "It renews your faith in humanity – and it's important to have that, especially today."

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