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New London trailblazer pens autobiography, 'Sunrise Sunset'

New London — She founded the Southeastern CT Women's Network and was a behind-the-scenes force helping launch what became known as Safe Futures as she rose through the ranks to become one of the first female bank vice presidents in the region, then blazed trails as one of the first women granted entry to the then all-male bastion known as the Thames Club.

Now Quaker Hill resident Millie Devine, 79, has penned an autobiography that shows it wasn't all smooth sailing.

Devine's new self-published book, "Sunrise Sunset," will be center stage at noon Friday at the Thames Club for a women's luncheon gathering, one of several events planned in the coming weeks to help launch the 425-page autobiography. She also will be part of a Zoom panel discussion titled "Writing A Woman's Life" at 7 p.m. Sept. 9 hosted by the women's network, in which she addresses questions about unconscious bias.

Devine may have blazed trails for women in the region, but it was never her intention to change the world. In fact, after graduating from Waterford High School in 1960, she attended secretarial school in Boston, where she learned basic business skills, before heading up to the state unemployment agency then on State Street to look for a job.

"Are you looking for benefits?" asked a receptionist.

"No, I'm looking for a job," came Devine's confident reply.

Turned out that Hartford National Bank was looking for a secretary in its trust department in March 1965. It was hoping for someone at least 25 years old, but Devine was only 23. Still, she strode in for an interview and was immediately hired, having recently passed a 12-hour secretarial exam required for certification.

"I'd done it my way," Devine said in an interview last month at Washington Street Coffee Shop. "I have a very strong faith."

She would eventually work her way to the top of the trust department as she got more and more involved in the community — a key part of her job in trying to draw business to the bank. Along the way, she often lunched at the Thames Club, a more than century-old, men-only social organization housed in a brick building on State Street with a bowling alley in the basement.

But she needed permission each time because the club did not allow women as members, only guests.

It seemed a roadblock, she said, that women would be excluded from a group dominated by the titans of business locally. So with the sponsorship of Edward McMorrow, a past president of the club, she applied for membership in 1992 and eventually was accepted as the first female paying member. She was also among the first women to join New London Rotary.

By 1997, though, she had been forced into retirement at the bank at the age of 55 after a merger.

"I thought, 'What am I going to do?'" she said. "I was too young to retire."

At her retirement party attended by over 300 people, Devine said a friend suggested that, rather than working for a nonprofit, she open a consulting business to help a wide range of nonprofits.

"It was like a lightbulb going off in my head," she said.

When asked to speak at her going-away, she promised, "You haven't heard the end of me. I may even go into business for myself."

Thus began perhaps the most productive period of her life as the operator of Devine Planning, a financial planning consultancy that she ran for more than 15 years. Along the way, she helped create a new trust department at Dime Bank, while also finding time to do her usual charitable work for community organizations such as Lawrence + Memorial Hospital.

Among the many groups to have received good advice and some initial elbow grease from Devine were Safe Futures, previously known as the Women's Center of Southeastern Connecticut, which helps battered women in the community, and the women's network, which started as just a small group of local movers and shakers and now boasts more than 150 members meeting monthly (and, yes, men are invited). Both of them this year are celebrating their 45th anniversaries.

"I have nothing against men," Devine said. "I've always believed men and women are equal."

She said she was particularly inspired by the example of the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Yet she was no women's liberation proponent, she said, eschewing the in-your-face style of Gloria Steinem.

"That's not my style at all," she said.

Her activism in women's empowerment groups, however, was not always embraced by her bosses. Once, she was grilled about her activity by a bank official who wondered if she was promoting unions that could agitate for higher pay. He backed down when she assured him she had not been engaged in forming a union.

"We were just teaching to prepare ourselves to rise in the ranks," Devine said.

Devine said she had been encouraged by friends to write her life story, but was initially hesitant because she had never kept diaries or journals. Instead, with the help of writing coach Nick Checker, she was able to reconstruct her life largely from memory.

A well-known figure in the region, she already has talked about her book at the New London Kiwanis Club and the Rotary, as well as on public-access television shows with former Mayor Marty Olsen and former East Lyme state representative candidate Cate Steel. A special evening at the Garde scheduled for this week had to be canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.

It's a long way from her humble beginnings as the daughter of a bread salesman and teacher living in Quaker Hill. There were financial struggles along the way, but somehow her parents always had money for piano lessons and violin lessons. Devine still lives in the house where she grew up.

She said she hopes with her book to inspire young people to forge their own path in life and understand that hard work will pay off in the long run. Along with a good dose of common sense, she also manages to show in her book some of the early obstacles that had to be overcome to work in a world dominated by men.

"I want young people to realize they can dream and bring those dreams to life."

Devine's book, selling for $18.95 retail, is available on Amazon.com and the Title IX bookstore and Studio 33 in New London. All proceeds will be directed to Safe Futures.

l.howard@theday.com

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