Millie L.B. Russell, a University of Washington administrator and instructor who touched the lives of thousands in Seattle’s Black and underrepresented communities for generations, died Nov. 1. She was 95.

A “dynamo” dedicated to breaking down barriers in the medical field, who didn’t retire until her late 70s, Russell died after a long struggle with dementia, said her daughter, Pat Russell.

“Her passion for change is her legacy because of all the things that she did and all the people she touched and how exponential that was,” Pat Russell said. “So she may have passed on, but she will always be with us. Always.”

An activist and community builder, Russell grew up in a progressive Central District home and carried those ideals throughout her life. Her father, Augustus Bown, was active in the longshoreman’s union and her mother, Edith, founded Seattle’s branch of the St. Peter Claver Center. Their home was a hive of activity, and it wasn’t unusual for Paul Robeson or Marian Anderson to drop in on the family.

Though she dedicated her life to building a medical infrastructure for underserved communities and staffing it with people of color, she didn’t start life on the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) path. At first, she wanted to go into the arts like two of her six siblings, who were musical prodigies, Pat Russell said. She desperately wanted to be a dancer, and Robeson, the towering actor, activist and organizer, was even willing to pay for her lessons.

“Her mother told her no,” Pat Russell said. “She said, ‘Somebody has to go into the sciences around here and it’s going to be you,’ and that’s what ended up happening. And she would not do a thing without really considering I think the impact that it had on our community. And we were all taught that community is part of you and you are part of that — sort of I am because we are point of view.”

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Russell joined the youth chapter of the NAACP when she enrolled at Seattle University, a membership that would change her life in a couple of ways. She met her husband, Edward Russell Jr., through her work with the organization. They were married for 59 years and had three children together. He died in 2007.

She also met future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, a towering figure in the civil rights movement. Russell toured the South with Marshall and used stories from that trip to inspire others for much of her life.

“Civil rights was important, and that was my volunteer work — but I also liked health care and I liked making precise decisions about what is important for a person’s health care needs,” Russell was quoted as saying in her UW memoriam.

She would focus on that mission for the next five decades, according to a family obituary assembled from multiple articles about Russell over the years and the UW memoriam.

After becoming in 1948 the first African American to graduate from Seattle University’s medical technician program, she worked at the Puget Sound Regional Blood Center for more than a quarter-century.

She was not particularly drawn to teaching, but found herself stepping into a void at the center when others needed training. That led her to enroll at Seattle University again, where she earned her secondary science-teaching certificate in 1971.

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She began working at the UW in 1974 as the director of the Preprofessional Program for Minority Students in Health Sciences, later becoming an assistant to the vice president at the Office of Minority Affairs. She received a master’s degree in kinesiology from the UW in 1978 and then earned her doctorate in education in 1988.

Russell’s tenure at the UW lasted more than three decades and she touched lives in numerous ways. During this period she started the Early Scholars Outreach Program to prepare underrepresented middle school students for higher education. That inspired the national GEAR UP program that has served thousands of pre-college students.

She also helped establish the Ron McNair Seattle Science Center Camp-In, a STEM program aimed at minority students in honor of the astronaut who was killed in the space shuttle Challenger accident. She was involved in international aid work, too, helping establish the Seattle-Mombasa Sister City Association. The partnership led to emergency aid and school supplies being sent to Kenya as well as cultural exchanges such as African art exhibits.

“Millie is a connector,” said Sheila Edwards Lange, UW Tacoma chancellor and former vice president at the Office of Minority Affairs & Diversity, in UW’s memoriam. “I think part of Millie’s greatness is that she can bring people together who might otherwise not meet and get them to see the value of working together.” 

Russell received numerous awards and honors in her career, including the UW’s Outstanding Public Service Award, the OMA&D Charles E. Odegaard Award, the UW’s highest diversity award, and she received her own day from the city of Seattle on her birthday in 2001 to honor her lifetime of service.

The awards were well deserved, but the real reward was the delight she took in seeing those she inspired succeed. That included her daughter, who went on to become a psychologist and is now the dean of the School of Health & Social Sciences at Seattle’s City University.

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“When people find out who my mother is, especially as I’ve been kind of floating around in academics, it’s like, ‘Your mother is Millie!,’ ” Pat Russell said. “So that’s been interesting. And then the other thing is, for a certain generation if you are a Black doctor, dentist, nurse, med tech and you went to the University of Washington, you knew my mother. The whole generation.”

Upon her retirement, the UW established an endowed scholarship for use by underrepresented, low-income, first-generation students interested in studying science.

In addition to her daughter, Russell is survived by two sons, Peter and Paul, nine grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

Memorial viewings will be held Nov. 30 and Dec. 1 at Bonney Watson Funeral Home, 16445 International Blvd., in SeaTac. A funeral Mass will be held Dec. 2 at Immaculate Conception Church in Seattle, 820 18th Ave., with interment at Calvary Cemetery.

The family suggests those wishing to make donations in her name do so at: The Dr. Millie Russell Endowed Scholarship at the UW’s Office of Minority Affairs and Equity, the Seattle Chapter of the NAACP, the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, The Mary Mahoney Professional Nurses Association Seattle and The United Negro College Fund.