As was mentioned in the previous entry in this series, Abby Crawford Milton was considered the Chattanooga leader in efforts to ratify the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote 100 years ago this year.
While her name conjures up images of a woman of foresight by people of today, including many just learning about her and the other important suffrage advocates, to Schaack Van Deusen she was simply the grandmother he had known since he was young.
But he also holds her in much respect – due to her appealing and forthright manner of showing love as much as her more publicly known ability to push for a just cause a century ago.
“She was a big influence on me,” said the retired Baylor School drama teacher and longtime assistant wrestling coach.
“She was feisty and she was healthy into her hundreds.”
Mr. Van Deusen, who grew up on Lookout Mountain and still helps with the Baylor wrestling program in retirement, said that his grandmother was very close to his mother, Mrs. George (Sarah Anna) Van Deusen. As a result, Mrs. Milton would visit her former hometown of Chattanooga regularly. He would also go down regularly to her home in Clearwater, Fla., by Tampa, where she moved after World War II.
“The kids, we loved going down there because there was a beach,” he said. “She would go swimming with us in the ocean.”
Although he did not really ponder her age at the time around the 1950s before graduating from Baylor in 1961, he realized later she was already pushing 80. And she would go on to live until 1991, when she had passed her 110th birthday.
He jokingly added that her two other daughters, Mrs. Frances Walker and Mrs. Corinne Moore, had moved to Florida to help take care of her in later years, but the opposite actually occurred. “She was taking care of them, they weren’t taking care of her,” he quipped.
He said she never really talked about politics or her accomplishments later in life, and he is not sure how she became interested in that realm. But he said she had the connections due in part to her husband, Chattanooga News publisher George Fort Milton Sr., who died in 1924, only four years after the ratification was approved following the vote of Tennessee as the 36th and deciding state.
“She certainly had her finger on the pulse of politics of the time, but I don’t know why she got so involved except she had the time and she was very politically astute,” he said. “She got a law degree, although she never practiced law.”
She also had a natural bent for leadership, he said, and a personality perhaps especially useful and needed by any woman at that time trying to improve her place in the world.
“I think she was not shy at all. She would let you know what she thought,” he said with a chuckle.
Regarding whether she would be considered a liberal or conservative, Mr. Van Deusen said that would be hard to say today. He said that she was very much a product of her time in terms of overall outlook on the world, and to her grandchildren she seemed conservative.
“But what she did for women was very liberal, way ahead of its time,” he said.
One of several stories written in the Chattanooga News-Free Press – which helped keep her name in the Chattanooga public eye more than any other local media did in her last decades – said she shared the same birthday of Feb. 6 with then-President Ronald Reagan.
But that was apparently all she said she shared with him, the newspaper article referenced, leading one to believe she was more liberal leaning in later years.
What Mr. Van Deusen knows for sure, though, is that she was a master storyteller, and this might have linked all her roles, from pioneering women’s suffragist to grandmother.
“The stories weren’t about her political life,” he said. “She loved to read to us. I think she’s the one who taught me to read. She really cared about our education. Many of us (her grandchildren) went to graduate school and that’s because she believed in education.”
Mr. Van Deusen’s mother, on the other hand, was a housewife and stay-at-home mother and had a more retiring personality. She was actually non-political, Mr. Van Deusen said, which was unusual considering her mother’s life.
But Ms. Milton’s husband had died when she was a younger woman, causing her to have to support herself, and that combined with her exposure to politics caused her to lead a more trend-setting life, he added.
While many Chattanoogans know Mr. Van Deusen for his acting skills that had him pursuing a career in Los Angeles before returning to Chattanooga, Mr. Van Deusen said none of that interest came from his grandmother, except for maybe the storytelling connection.
He has plenty of stories, too, of his grandmother simply as a beloved human instead of a local woman pioneer. These include having her grandchildren play Canasta to stay nimble, riding in the back of his VW camper all the way to Florida when he was in graduate school, her prolific poetry writing avocation, and her regular visits to Mount Vernon restaurant while in Chattanooga.
“She liked to get a whiskey sour and key lime pie there,” he said with a laugh.
Many this year will be toasting and celebrating her in turn as someone who transcended time, just as the 19th Amendment has.
As for Mr. Van Deusen, he has never stopped being grateful for her.
“She was pretty amazing,” he said, adding that he believes all the women who have run for president this year can thank her and the others.
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To see the previous story in this series, read here.
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