Woog's World / "Jo Ann Miller's marathon of change"
A few years ago, Jo Ann Miller weighed 270 pounds. She walked every day, took spinning classes and had an active social life. But she did not feel great about herself.
In 2006 the longtime Westporter had bariatric surgery. She lost 150 pounds, and ran in the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C.
Now she's done something almost as difficult: She's written a book about her inspirational life story. In her six decades she's battled obesity; lost a brother in a motorcycle accident; been raped, married and divorced; lost a lover in an automobile crash -- and emerged as one of our town's most positive, helpful and engaging residents.
A Marathon of Changes: The Radical Transformation of a Baby Boomer uses an intriguing series of flashbacks to tell Miller's tale. Each chapter begins with the Marine Corps Marathon. Then the author describes how she got to that point. If it was fiction, you might not believe it.
But if you know Miller, you smile in recognition and read on.
She was a military brat, whose Marine pilot father moved often. One constant was his best friend from flight training: John Glenn. They flew together at the Battle of Midway, then in Korea. When both were stationed near Washington, they bought homes next door to each other in Arlington. To this day, Miller calls the former astronaut and senator "Uncle Johnny." (He wrote the forward to her book.)
Miller was, in some ways, a rebellious child of the '60s. At Upsala College she organized transportation to a March on Washington after the Kent State shootings. Her father was displeased, but that made the Millers no different from millions of American families.
After graduating in 1971, she entered the retail world. Rising quickly up Bamberger's corporate ladder, she traveled constantly. In 1984 she moved to Westport -- a town she'd always liked, through visits to friends nearby.
She wasn't here much -- for years she commuted to Washington -- and in 1990 she finally pulled the plug on her stressful life. Steve Daniels and his wife, Cheryl Scott-Daniels, steered her to a career in real estate. It was a fulfilling change -- Miller is the type of woman who enjoys helping people, and she appreciated the chance to make homeowners' dreams come true -- but the irregular schedule had her eating at all the wrong times. Eventually, she weighed nearly 300 pounds.
Sitting in a boring real estate seminar in 2005, Miller idly wrote down a set of goals. They included becoming fit; gaining financial independence; entering into a close and trusting relationship; feeling good about herself, and believing she deserved good things to happen to her.
The fitness goal came about through bariatric surgery. With the help of Dr. Craig Floch, she navigated the difficult choices -- and lifestyle changes -- that helped shed half her weight. And keep it off.
"I'd always lost pounds," she says. "But then I'd just put them back on." Now she was succeeding.
Around the same time, she reconnected with Carl Swanson. In college she once dated the former Staples High School soccer player and golfer, but scarcely remembered him. Yet 38 years later -- after a career as a lawyer in Texas -- he had moved to Vermont, and become a writer. At a mini-college reunion he'd seen Miller's name and address, and was intrigued she lived in his former hometown.
Swanson e-mailed Miller. He said he was recovering from the breakup of a long marriage. She responded. His ensuing e-mails -- funny and flirtatious -- struck a chord with Miller. She found herself attracted to his electronic correspondence.
Finally, he called. That same day, Miller received a contract on a house she was selling. It turned out to be the exact property his parents owned while he was growing up. It was, she writes, "as if some divine power was sending an angel to me."
She was not yet ready to meet him in person -- she was still losing weight -- but Swanson touched her deeply. She realized she had used her weight as an excuse not to pursue relationships.
When Swanson planned a trip to New York, Miller suggested he stay with her neighbor Joey Karmanosky, a retired postal carrier with a heart problem. Miller had been helping him.
Miller and Swanson met on Columbus Day, three months after her surgery. She had lost 70 pounds, but was still "robust." She was smitten with his blue eyes, scruffy beard and "Robin Williams look." They kissed -- a moment, he said later, that "sealed the deal."
The relationship grew, as Swanson helped Miller take care of Karmanosky while he died. Today they live together in Miller's home. They bring out the best in each other. It was Swanson who encouraged her to write the book -- and came up with the "looking backward from the marathon" hook.
"I probably wouldn't have allowed Carl in my life if I hadn't had surgery," she says. "But everything in life meshed for me. It wasn't a plan, but it all worked -- almost as if it was meant to happen. I'm really happy now."
Miller always enjoyed the early morning hours. She is a fixture at Wakeman Field, with her two black Labrador retrievers. She's also a huge Staples sports fan -- her godson Rob Philpott was one of football coach Marce Petroccio's first stars.
Seeing Miller now -- perhaps running with Swanson -- you'd never know she struggled so long with her weight, and had so many difficult life experiences. Still, she says, "it's been a blessing to be able to help people. It makes you realize what's important in life."
Twice in a row, Miller has won the Minuteman 5K race for her age group (60--69). Next up: November's New York Marathon.
And golf. Swanson -- who in addition to being an attorney and writer, was also a teaching pro -- has gotten her back in the game.
"I shoot in the 90s now," Miller says proudly. She'll never shoot her weight -- but she's a lot closer today than ever before.