like daughter, like father

County office runs in the family
for Karen Miller and her dad,
Dean Childress.
Tuesday, October 28, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 3:25 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

From helping out on the farm to showing cattle in Chicago as a young girl, Boone County Southern District Commissioner Karen Miller was her father’s shadow.

But in 1994, it was her father, Dean Childress, who followed in his daughter’s footsteps when he was elected Western District commissioner in Scotland County.

The father-and-daughter duo might have the same title, but their jobs are as different as the counties they serve.

While Miller, 51, deals with the complexities of land-use planning, rezoning requests, storm-water run-off and information technology, Childress, 72, worries primarily about the condition of roads and bridges. And while Miller helps lead a work force of nearly 400 people, her father’s county employs only 50. Childress attends two meetings per week, while Miller scrambles to make it to 25.

“The first time after we were elected, I was talking about dust control, and he said ‘What are you talking about?’ “ Miller said. “He looked at me real funny and said, ‘You realize here we can’t afford the rock that is put on the road. The people buy their own rock. We’ll haul it, and at the end of the year we might not have enough money to haul it.’ “

Scotland County, 140 miles north of Columbia and just south of the Iowa border, is a rural county populated by families who mostly earn their living by farming. Its population totals just a little less than 5,000 people. Boone County, by comparison, is home to 135,000 people.

Miller and her family moved in 1969 to Scotland County from a farm in Lowell, Ind. She remained there through her last two years of high school, then moved to Columbia.

It was her rural roots and continuing interest in rural issues that landed her a position on the board of directors of the National Association of Counties. She was recently elected president of that group and says boosting awareness of rural counties’ needs is her main goal. Miller says her father’s position helps her stay in tune with the challenges of rural America and brainstorm solutions to those challenges.

“She’s very strong believer in that, and I think that it comes from her roots and parts of Boone County that she deals with,” said the group’s executive director, Larry Naake. “She’s got a lot of initiative to get more attention paid to rural areas. She’s going to take this issue to a new level.”

Miller cited lack of Internet access and other technology as an example of the challenges rural counties face. She relies heavily on her cellular phone and e-mail to get in touch with people throughout the day, especially because meetings keep her out of her office and because she travels a lot on National Association of Counties business.

“When you think of the Internet ... we bought a computer so (Childress) could have Internet, and then we found out there’s a long-distance charge from the house, so we got rid of it,” Miller said. “It was very frustrating to think they don’t have options we take for granted. Here we can go to the public library. It really helps me to stay grounded in the problems of what’s going on in rural America,” Miller said.

The differences between Childress and Miller’s jobs don’t stop with technology. In Scotland County, the three commissioners meet in a three-story courthouse in the county seat of Memphis, where the town square features a smattering of small stores and the town theater. The Memphis courthouse resembles a smaller version of the Boone County Courthouse but doesn’t compare to the large and comparatively lavish Boone County Government Center, with its pedestrian plaza, sculptures, fountains and paintings that adorn the lobby and the offices of county officials.

While Childress is happy to help his daughter, he said the solutions to problems in Boone County have no bearing in his neck of the woods.

“There’s no comparison between her county and my county. There’s population and revenue differences. We only spend a couple million per year, and they spend that much in a month,” Childress said.

Miller remembers her father being overwhelmed when he came to her first political fund-raiser back in 1992. The fish fry raised between $7,000 and $10,000, and Miller plied the crowd with sweatshirts and hats. In Scotland County, candidates’ campaigns include radio ads and stenciled plywood signs.

“Up here, no one donates to your campaign,” Childress said. “You don’t have to get out and spend money like you do down there. You get on the radio the last two weeks. That’s about it for our advertisements, except for putting a few signs out. Most people know you up here. ... They know if you did something wrong.”

Miller spent about $40,000 on her last campaign for commissioner; Childress spent $100.

To help with her father’s first bid for office, Miller sent him a father’s day present of 20 blue-and-orange “Vote for Dean” T-shirts.

“He liked it and probably could have used 20 more, and the people wore them everywhere,” Miller said.

Miller said that while she decided on her own to run for commissioner, her father’s active role in the community influenced her. Besides being involved in farm organizations, Childress was an active member of the school board, helping oversee construction of a new high school, and served on the Scotland County nursing board. He ran for county assessor in 1992 but lost by one vote after a recount.

Childress said he moved his family to Scotland County to get his children away from the drug scene in Indiana.

“I think (Scotland County) is a nice place to live,” he said. “There’s not too much violence that goes on here. I raised seven kids without too much trouble.”

Childress said that Miller was independent as a child. Although her mother dressed her in pretty dresses and put her hair in banana curls, Miller wanted to spend more time working on the farm than helping her mother in the kitchen. Although Miller jokes that she wishes she didn’t have her father’s build, she’s happy to inherit his competitive nature, his friendly personality, and his philosophy of leaving “a place better than you found it.”

“You don’t just get that yourself, and you have to have something guide you into that mode,” she said. “My father was the guiding force there.”

Still, Miller wishes she could enjoy her father’s quiet way of life.

“He likes living on the farm ... being laid back, and it’s hard for me to slow down...maybe when I get a little older I will,” Miller said.

Childress said it is hard to get in touch with his daughter because she is always on the go and always in a meeting. Although the two don’t get to see each other except for during the holidays, their jobs have brought them together on numerous occasions including training and Miller’s inauguration as National Association of Counties president. Miller also believes having similar jobs has brought her closer to her father.

“Whenever you have something in common, it gives you something else to focus on and argue through, and thank God we’re on the same side politically,” Miller said.

While Miller plans to continue her job as commissioner, Childress’ duties end in January 2005. He has chosen not to run again because of his health.

“Karen is a very hard-working and dedicated person,” said Dick Burke, executive director the Missouri Association of Counties. “And as for Dean, I know he has health issues and still carries on his duties, and so I’m sure she gets a lot of that from him.”

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