Doug's Diggings: You learn about a person in 67,600 hours
We've all heard the descriptions of Willis H. Miller. They include icon, legend, historian, generous person -- the list goes on and on.
For me, it's even more personal. I was hired by Willis to work at the Star-Observer in May of 1973. I have been working at the Star-Observer for about 35.5 years. What this means, of course, is that I may have spent more awake time with Mr. Miller than any other person on the face of the earth -- including my wife!
I don't want to make this too complicated, but for the first 30-plus years, we probably spent eight-plus hours per day working in the office. Since Willis cut his hours the last few years, let's say that we averaged four hours the last five-plus years.
If you do a little math, we spent about 62,400 hours working together for 30 years and about 5,200 for the past five years. The total is 67,600 hours over 35 years. If you continue to figure days, years, etc., I found that I have spent almost eight years of time with Willis H. Miller!
When you spent 67,600 hours, or eight years, with somebody, you find out plenty about a person. The good news is that the time spent with Willis was very enjoyable and rewarding -- I'm a better person because of it.
Everyone talks about how Willis is fun to be with and has an optimistic outlook -- I couldn't agree more. It's probably one of the reasons I have been at the Star-Observer for 35 years; I've enjoyed my job! I think Willis Miller has had a huge influence on my choices, especially when you consider that most people don't stay with one company for more than a few years.
What I saw over that time was a man who made good decisions and was always willing to share the wealth. Many of the people who reminisce about Willis talk about his generosity. He was plenty generous. He often gave money to people who needed a helping hand; he often lent money to people, knowing that he may never be repaid.
As I became more involved in the Star-Observer and became a shareholder, I was a bit surprised by the amount of money that Willis made in the newspaper business. I was surprised because it wasn't nearly as much as I thought!
Oh, he made a comfortable living, but despite the fact that he had controlling interest in the company, he never tried to grab a big paycheck.
His one personal extravagance in life was travel. He loved to travel and visited every corner of the world. When it came to everyday living, however, there was a frugal side to Willis Miller.
He bought most of his clothes at Goodwill stores. He never drove a fancy car -- always opting for the economy model with no frills. He was never into buying fancy furniture or living in a fancy house. For the past 25-plus years he has rented a small apartment near the newspaper office.
But his heart was big -- in fact, huge. As I was interviewing people to talk about the memories of Willis, most all mentioned his generosity. But I had to chuckle when lifelong friend Harriet Christianson described what many people were sometimes thinking. She said he was a "soft touch." As careful as he was with his personal finances, he was always willing to take a financial chance on somebody else's life.
Willis' other passion in life was history, especially local history. He personally built the now-famous 200,000-card file at the Star-Observer office. He has cataloged thousands of historical photos. What he feared more than anything was that no one would be able to carry the history torch once he was gone. If I wanted to see a real twinkle in Willis' eye, all I had to do was go into his office and ask what year the toll bridge was built, or who built the house on the corner of Third and Orange Street, or when did the last sawmill close in Hudson, or when did Charlie and Yvette Ward buy the newspaper?
People often ask me what advice Willis gave me about the newspaper business.
For the most part he led by example. But there is one word of advice that sticks in my mind. Willis always said, "Take care of the small details and the big issues will solve themselves."
Those words are especially true in the newspaper business. Of course, I'm human and unfortunately I don't always follow his advice. What I have discovered over the years is that what he said is exactly correct. When the details slide, the problems grow; when details are dealt with, problems disappear!
Except for a bout with polio in his youth, Willis had a very healthy life. He'd never set foot into a hospital until the past year or two. In 2008, however, he had more health issues than he had seen in his entire life.
As people get older, they tend to think more about their mortality. Willis was no different. In 2008 he regularly started to show me where an item might be in his office and say "just in case something happens during the night."
I believe that sometimes people can sense that their earthly life might be nearing its end. Maybe it was coincidence or maybe it was a premonition or feeling, but Willis gave me this poem just two weeks before he died. The poem goes like this:
HAIL & FAREWELL<
The Editor stood at the pearly gates.
His face was lined and old.
He stood before the Man of Fate
For admission to the fold.
"What have you done," St. Peter said
"To gain admittance here?"
"I've been a small town editor, he replied,
"For many and many a year."
The pearly gates swung open wide,
St. Peter rang the bell,
"Come in and choose your harp," he said
"You've already had your share of Hell."