Coming around a curve, Tammy Miller turned a corner in her life.
The sky was blue. Her Toyota Solara convertible’s top was down. On a back-country road, Miller was sailing through a perfect August day last year when a message struck her full force.
A traffic sign didn’t make the impact. It was a cemetery tucked to the side.
“I swear this overwhelming voice said, ‘Do not die with your dreams inside. How many people there did?’ ” she recalled.
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A breast cancer survivor, she was recovering from another surgery. Here was the universe shouting to her, and she listened: “I knew at that moment I had to do something.”
Two months later, she heeded the call.
After 18 years at Penn State, she left her university job in October to pursue being a full-time auctioneer and public speaker through her respective companies, Tammy Miller Auctions, LLC, and Tammy Speaks, LLC.
The Huffington Post applauded her decision.
Last month, the online publication chose her for its “15 Women Over 50” series highlighting inspirational examples of women making radical changes in their lives to follow their passions. Editor-at-large Rita Wilson (also an actress in her own right and the wife of Academy Award-winning actor Tom Hanks) received about 2,000 submissions.
Even before her profile ran recently, Miller stood out.
The author of three books, the Patton Township resident is a sought-after public speaker, master of ceremonies and communications expert who has given presentations at international conferences as far away as Singapore and Malaysia.
Back home, she’s known for supporting the Pennsylvania Breast Cancer Coalition and the annual Pink Zone at Penn State benefit basketball game — causes dear to her heart. Her pink-tipped locks have become her signature look.
In 2012, she became the first woman in Pennsylvania to be named a Toastmasters International accredited speaker, an honor bestowed by the organization to members who are experts in subjects and have mastered public speaking. Only 68 people worldwide can claim the distinction.
At Penn State, she led training workshops and coordinated outreach and human resource programs, among other duties. She had a comfortable salary, full benefits, security.
She wanted more.
Her job put food on her table but, as she says, hadn’t fed her spirit in a long time.
What nourished it was her side occupation.
Five years ago, at a charity event, she overheard two women talking. One asked the other if she would be willing to auction off cakes baked for the event. The query sparked a look of a terror — and an idea in Miller’s mind.
“I’m just thinking to myself, ‘I’m already a speaker. What would it take to be an auctioneer?’ ” she said.
In Pennsylvania, she discovered, the answer would be Pennsylvania Auctioneers Association classes spread over 15 weeks. She found an alternative: the prestigious Missouri Auction School’s intensive 10-day course.
Before leaving for St. Louis, she slipped in a CD from the course materials in her car player. Examples of rapid-fire patter left her dazed and doubtful.
Forget it, she told herself. She couldn’t do it. She was going to drive all that way to look like an idiot.
A dream teetered on the edge.
“That’s where a lot of people stop,” she said.
She wasn’t going to be one of them. Summoning her nerve, she hit the road and graduated in 2011.
To be licensed in Pennsylvania, however, she needed to continue her education. She began a two-year apprenticeship with Sam Force, a Howard auctioneer, working more than 30 auctions statewide.
“What that did was enable me to meet all these incredible people all the way,” she said.
They helped her learn more than the ropes. She realized something about herself leading up to her pivotal August drive.
“Why now?” she said in her Huffington Post profile. “I just feel like this is the time I’m supposed to do this.”
Call it a leap of faith.
A deeply spiritual person, she believes a guiding hand has shaped her path. How else to explain what she heard on the road? How else to account for the Huffington Post honor?
By chance, she saw a Facebook mention of the series two days before the entry deadline. She went ahead and threw her name into the ring.
Two weeks later, while at an auctioneers conference, she heard back. The editors wanted a short video, an essay and photographs. She thought it was the next stage.
To her amazement, she had made the final cut.
She’s still stunned, and humbled, that a “tiny, little woman out of central Pennsylvania” was chosen for a national series.
“Clearly, it’s out of my hands,” she said.
At 55, she’s a little nervous but excited about the future. She’s working on two more books: a compilation of auctioneer tales and a collaboration with a Lancaster farmer, Ivan Stoltzfus, about his cross-country journey on a John Deere tractor to raise awareness for the Wounded Warrior program.
They’re tentatively calling their book “Changing Lives One Mile at a Time.” She hopes to do the same, only with each auction.
“So many times I believe people are stopped and stymied because they do not know how to move forward,” she said.
“Whether they suddenly face a ‘new normal’ as in the case of a deceased spouse, or a feeling of wanting to sell their business or home to make life changes, or anything in between, I firmly believe that the lack of action can be resolved in part by an auctioneer who cares about that person.”
She believes in forward progress, that life is a “step-by-step process.” She took one to join a minority — women comprise only 10 percent of her profession worldwide — and now she’s taking others, such as advanced auctioneer training and skydiving.
“I don’t have any idea what the future holds, but I know who holds my future,” she said, comparing her new life to a “warm summer breeze that’s just swirling around,” carrying another message from above:
“Tammy, you have no idea where I’m going to take you, but it’s going to be such a great adventure.”