OLDSMAR — It's been five months since Vice Mayor Janice Miller announced during a City Council meeting that she had been diagnosed with lung cancer. "I am going through treatments … But I'm going to keep working for the city of Oldsmar,'' she said.
Ms. Miller's work for the city ended Saturday, when she died at home with her son, Grant Miller, and husband, Ruben Hernandez, by her side. She was 71.
"She was quite an individual,'' said Grant, a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy who teaches physics and astronomy at the U.S. Naval Academy. "My mother very much wanted the city of Oldsmar, the state of Florida and the U.S. to be able to fulfill all of its great ambitions, and she worked hard to try to make that happen.''
Ms. Miller's years in politics began in the early 1990s as a volunteer for the Ross Perot campaign, her husband recalled.
"I remember I was working out of town and Janice called me and said that the Perot campaign needed help in Tampa Bay, and she was going to do it,'' he said.
She went on to serve as a founding delegate at the first national convention of the Reform Party in 1997. In 2001, while Hernandez was head of the Reform Party of Florida, Ms. Miller, as chairwoman for the state convention, brought the event to Oldsmar.
In January 2003, she was serving on the city Planning Board when a reporter called her at home asking for comment on the fact there would be no city election that year because nobody was coming forward to challenge the incumbents.
After she hung up, Ms. Miller expressed her concern about that to her husband.
"I said, 'Honey, it's time for you to do this. Run.' " Hernandez said. "Within just a few days she was able to get 250 signatures and she filed her papers to get on the ballot. She had so much support.''
Longtime City Council member and former mayor Jerry Beverland, who knew Ms. Miller for more than three decades, said they became friends after someone put up a homemade campaign sign that said, "Vote for Beverland. He's a good man." Beverland learned Ms. Miller put it up.
Though they were friends, they didn't always agree.
"You always knew where she stood on an issue,'' he said.
One of Beverland's favorite memories of Ms. Miller concerns a City Council meeting in 2004. Roger Kumar, who had sold his waterfront property to the city, came back to the council to ask if he could buy back 2,324 square feet for a buffer between that land and his new home next door.
While Beverland supported the sale, Ms. Miller opposed it.
"She made me so mad that I slammed the gavel down and it broke. The top fell off and landed in her lap,'' he said.
"But you know, a short time later, as a joke she gave me a tube of glue. That's the way we were. We disagreed but our friendship was always there.''
Ms. Miller first came to Oldsmar in the early 1970s with her first husband, Steven Miller, a jockey from Illinois. She worked as a horse trainer at Tampa Bay Downs, then called Florida Downs.
"My mother would rise very early to take care of the horses and then she'd come home and get me to school,'' said Grant. "She really worked hard to be both a professional and a good mother.''
In 1980, Steven Miller drowned in a fishing accident on Tampa Bay. Ms. Miller moved to Miami to run a race horse transport business. "She knew she had to earn more money to support me,'' Grant said. "It was a difficult time.''
In Miami she met Hernandez, a fire sprinkler installer.
"We lived in the same apartment complex,'' Hernandez said. "I was a single father with a little girl, and Janice gave me a chance, and it was the best thing that ever happened to me.''
In 1991, the couple decided to move back to Oldsmar, where Ms. Miller worked as a real estate agent. "Oldsmar was always Janice's home and it just felt like it was time," Hernandez said.
Upon her death, Ms. Miller was serving as president of the Women Elected to Municipal Government in Florida, a voluntary association of local elected women officials.
Ms. Miller also served as president of the Suncoast League of Cities as well as one of the first ambassadors for the Upper Tampa Bay Chamber of Commerce.
According to Mayor Doug Bevis, one of her greatest contributions to the city was the creation of Oldsmar's Citizen's Academy, where residents can enroll to learn more about the city and city government. After he learned Ms. Miller had cancer, Bevis encouraged the city to rename it "the Janice Miller Citizens Academy."
"There's a ton you can say about Janice and her work, but her passion for that academy was just amazing,'' Bevis said. "Every year, she tried to improve it, to make it better and to showcase the city.''
Ms. Miller's last public appearance was in November at Veterans Memorial Park. Her son was the featured speaker for the city's Veterans Day celebration.
"I was so proud of her that day,'' recalled Grant. "It was amazing how many people came up to me and told me how much she meant to them. She really loved this city."
The city charter requires that the council appoint someone to Ms. Miller's seat within 30 days. That person will serve until the next city election in March 2015. Whoever wins that election will serve the remainder of Miller's term, which ends in March 2016, according to city clerk Ann Stephan.
Piper Castillo can be reached at (727) 445-4163 or firstname.lastname@example.org. To write a letter to the editor, visit tampabay.com/letters.