Published December 02. 2013 4:00AM
New London - When Millie Devine was just starting her career in the early 1960s as a secretary in Boston, she felt she needed to do more than just work. Coming from a family of teachers - her mother and three aunts were educators - she was inspired to find ways to help her community.
She joined the Proparvulis Club, a Catholic organization that raised money to send inner-city children to summer camp. The motto of the group was "having fun while doing good."
For more than 40 years, Devine, who moved back to the area in 1965 and has had a successful banking career working with nonprofits to maintain their finances, has volunteered for a variety of groups, including those that improve the lives of women. She created an organization for professional women at a time when women were starting to rise in the corporate world but were still excluded from many male-only establishments. She now works in the trust department at Dime Bank.
"I'm working. It's stimulating. And I'm helping people," Devine said earlier this week. "I'm still having fun while doing good."
Now, two local organizations that provide safety and opportunities for women are recognizing Devine for her more than 30 years of support.
Safe Futures, the former Women's Center of Southeastern Connecticut, which helps those affected by domestic violence and sexual assault, and the Women's Network, which Devine founded in 1976 to help professional women meet and support one another, are in the midst of a fund-raiser, selling bricks on a walkway leading to Safe Futures' walk-in counseling center. The money raised will be set aside in a permanent endowment in honor of Devine, and the interest income will help support Safe Futures programs.
"She started this legacy for women in southeastern Connecticut of supporting each other, networking and empowering each other," said Emma Palzere-Rae, director of development and communications for Safe Futures. When the idea for the endowment came up, she said everyone realized the close connection between the Women's Network and Safe Futures. When Devine was organizing the Women's Network, the same group of professional women were also involved in establishing the Women's Center.
We've been connected with hands and heart all these years," Palzere-Rae said. "We thought, 'duh, let's do this to honor Millie.' "
When she heard about the honor, Devine said, she cried. And she made the first donation, writing a $10,000 check.
"They surprised me," she said, describing how the heads of the two groups came to her home to tell her about the campaign.
"I'm the end of my family line. I have no kids, no nieces or nephews, only a few cousins," she said. "I lost my sister (who also never married) in 2000, but as our family decreased, we always said the community became our family. That's why I donate. I want to help our brothers and sisters."
When Devine, who grew up in Quaker Hill, landed a job at Hartford National Bank and eventually began working in the trust department where she often helped nonprofits become financially stable. Twenty-five percent of her job was to be out in the community.
She championed the "Leave a Legacy" public awareness campaign to encourage people to leave money in their wills to charity. She was president of Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Southeastern Connecticut and the first woman president of the New London Rotary Club.
But perhaps one of her greatest accomplishments was establishing the Women's Network. At the time, women were not allowed in the Thames Club on State Street, where the city's power elite held lunches, conferences and meetings. For a while, Devine was given special permission to use one of the conference rooms to meet with clients but was not allowed anywhere else in the club.
"She's a woman that really cares about others," said Connie Plessman, who was president of the Women's Network in 2001. "What I learned from Millie more than anything, is the importance of women supporting women."
Plessman, a professor and academic coordinator for Southern Illinois University at the Naval Submarine Base in Groton, said Devine showed her how to take the initiative.
"Sometimes you have to open a door yourself," she said.
The Thames Club was not unique, Devine said. All cities had male-only bastions where business connections were made. Professional women needed a place to meet with other professionals, she said.
"It was the mid-1970s," she said. "There was women's lib, Gloria Steinem, bra-burning, marches and all that business of women's rights."
She said her boss at the time teased her once too often about "marching up and down the street" with signs to allow women into the club.
"He got my Irish up," she said. "I said, 'OK, I don't want in, I want the same thing or better.' He said, 'you better start one yourself.' "
So she did.
"Women were not taken seriously in the business world at the time. It was very lonely for a woman in business," said Attorney Linda Mariani, a past president of the Network who still has the original letter Devine sent her in 1977 asking to join.
"Men did not know how to act with us," she said. "It was very comforting to have a network of other business women then, with whom to discuss our trials and tribulations and to share reactions to the often condescending treatment we received from our colleagues."
"She's an amazing person whom everyone knows and loves and is completely trustworthy," Mariani said.
The Thames Club began admitting women in 1992 and Devine was the first woman to join.