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Oritha M. Miller, systems administrator, trailblazing Marine, and church activist, dies at 89

One of the first Black women to join the Marines, she earned her bachelor's degree in business from Temple when she was 55.

Mrs. Miller was an expert in computer systems technology, and volunteered to help seniors learn about computers after she retired.
Mrs. Miller was an expert in computer systems technology, and volunteered to help seniors learn about computers after she retired.Read moreCourtesy of the family

Oritha M. Miller, 89, of Philadelphia, a longtime computer systems administrator for the Department of Health and Human Services, one of the first Black women to serve in the U.S. Marine Corps, and an avid church leader, died Monday, Sept. 20, of cardiac arrest at home.

Inspired by her hardworking mother and motivated by her own boundless energy and enthusiasm, Mrs. Miller earned her bachelor’s degree in business administration and computer science from Temple University when she was 55.

She worked for more than 20 years as chief of information technology and do-it-all systems administrator for the HHS regional office in Philadelphia and for 40 years as an independent tax preparer with more than 500 clients.

In 1953, during the Korean War, she became one of the first Black women to join the Marine Corps, and she did that because the Navy recruiting office was closed that day.

“She didn’t want to do normal things,” said her daughter, Cheryl. “And she was the kind of person who, when she started something, she finished it well. She inspired me to be who I am today.”

Mrs. Miller was stationed in Cherry Point, N.C., and Hawaii during her three years in the Marines. She overcame the racism of the time and the normal challenges of military service to earn the rank of corporal and received a Good Conduct Medal and a National Defense Service Medal.

Ever independent, she once got a small heart tattoo on her hand, and her unimpressed Marine superiors disciplined her with a lengthy guard duty assignment. Ever resourceful, she placed a coat hanger under her uniform jacket and used the hook to secure herself to a wall so she would remain upright and at attention even if she tired.

Later, while stationed in Hawaii, she and some friends visited an active volcano, and, mistaking hot lava for hard rock, she burned the soles of her sneakers clean off.

Mrs. Miller made her way to Philadelphia in the early 1960s and got a job as a temporary office worker at the HHS. By 1987, she had earned her business degree at Temple and when she retired from HHS in the 1990s was responsible for running the department’s entire computer system — budgeting, installing, repairing, and training the staff.

Her one-time supervisor at HHS, Rear Admiral Arthur J. Lawrence, called her “the wizard” of technology.

“She was an expert in things electronic and taught me a lot, not only as a technical expert but as a woman Marine who bootstrapped herself,” he wrote in an online tribute.

Born Aug. 30, 1932, in Key West, Fla., Mrs. Miller was the oldest of six girls and often looked after her sisters when her mother was at work. She was a drum majorette for the Douglass High School band and, as an avid reader and engaging public speaker, won a high school debate on the topic “I Speak for Democracy.”

Mrs. Miller was active in church throughout her life and served as treasurer, president of the choir, and chair of several committees at Calvary St. Augustine Episcopal Church. If the church sponsored a bake sale, fish fry, or bus trip to an event, she was there.

“I will fondly remember Miss Oritha as the example of how to be a classy lady,” a friend wrote in an online tribute. “Regal, sophisticated, and proud.”

Mrs. Miller liked to read novels, solve crossword puzzles, and sew clothes for her family.

Her daughter wrote in a tribute: “Some would say she was tough but fair. But if she loved you, you knew it by her actions and deeds.”

In addition to her daughter, Mrs. Miller is survived by former husband Matthew Miller, a grandson, two sisters, and other relatives. Three sisters died earlier.

Services were Nov. 5.

Donations in her name may be made to Calvary St. Augustine Episcopal Church, 814 N. 41st St., Philadelphia, Pa. 19104.