Our View: Life at the Star-Observer changes foreverThe corner office is dark today. Willis H. Miller is gone. Few individuals we know today emulate the strength of character, tenacity, curiosity and wisdom that Willis shared with this community each day when he departed his modest Third Street apartment to mingle with the rest of us.
By: Steve Dzubay, Hudson Star-Observer
The corner office is dark today.
Willis H. Miller is gone.
Few individuals we know today emulate the strength of character, tenacity, curiosity and wisdom that Willis shared with this community each day when he departed his modest Third Street apartment to mingle with the rest of us.
Though short in stature, Willis was a giant of a man.
He’ll perhaps be best remembered publicly for compiling and recording a century’s worth of area genealogical information onto 4- by 6-inch index cards over the past 60-plus years. His typewritten information from tens of thousands of cards has been microfilmed twice for the Genealogical Society of the Utah Latter-day Saints. Several years back, volunteers from the St. Croix Valley Genealogical Society keyed his information into a database containing 52,311 names. The file is now readily available to the public.
While chronicling history was Willis’ passion and life vocation, he liked nothing better than gathering it firsthand as a reporter. Up until he succumbed to a stroke early Friday morning, he remained a keen listener.
An only child, at age 11, Willis one day complained to his mother when he felt some of the symptoms of polio described in a classroom advisory. The year was 1929. The local doctor twice ignored his pleas and ordered bed rest. It wasn’t until he lost function of his legs that the physician acknowledged the possibility and sent him to Minneapolis on the chance that experimental therapies being practiced by a nun named Sister Kenny might help.
Willis wasn’t expected to return, but he did, and months later, the teacher asked him to explain to the class why he wasn’t able to participate in the same activities as them. He found this quite acceptable.
Miller was never hospitalized again until a heart ailment — typical of polio survivors — cropped up in 2004.
Although a collegial, accepting individual, Willis wasn’t afraid to step away from the herd.
He reported the news boldly and directly. In its day, that might have included someone’s purchase of a new car, the arrest of a prominent person or a local angle on an international story such as the 1946 arrest in Chicago of Hudson’s Kathleen Nash Durant, who had stolen jewels belonging to a granddaughter of then-Queen Victoria from the Kronberg Castle in Germany.
Miller’s recollection of the events found its way into the Sunday Times (of London) in 1995 when the newspaper did a feature story at the 50th anniversary of the heist.
A certain media executive once threatened Miller’s job if he reported the local drunken driving arrest of the man’s son. The unvarnished report appeared. An attempt was made to sack Miller but then owner Yvette Ward supported him.
Miller had an unquenchable thirst for anything Hudson, especially its people. His eyes would sparkle as he described someone’s accomplishments or status. He was very impressed with personal achievement — perhaps because he’d climbed so far himself. He regularly visited the Office of Probate at the St. Croix County Courthouse once a will became a public record. And he’d report what he discovered in the newspaper.
His attention to detail in newspaper obituaries was the bane of area funeral directors. He insisted on accuracy and completeness, regardless of social implications for the living. More than once after he sold the newspaper in 1984 and assumed a backstage role of penning obits and a historical column, the editor or publisher would get calls from family members — appealing that the name of a former spouse or illegitimate child be excised from the obituary Willis was penning. Sometimes the complaints would focus on his unwillingness to include the name of a favorite pet or his hacking of flowery language like “died in her loving arms…”
“Nonsense,” Miller would say. “We’re creating a historical record here, and someday someone will come looking for that information and they’ll want to know the truth.”
A piece of Willis died when the Star-Observer moved to paid obituaries two years ago, but the public failed to appreciate his factual purity, and the newspaper needed the revenue.
He penned the first edition of his own obituary years ago. His latest revision appears elsewhere in today’s newspaper.
For the first 12 years of his reporting career, Miller got around town on a bicycle. He took some teasing but at a salary of $15/week, a car was out of the question. He was always careful with his money and preferred giving it away to charities like the Full Gospel Mission which, he would say, “serves the dregs of society.”
When he traveled, he returned bearing gifts of expensive jewelry for the many special women in his life, yet he bought his own clothes from the Salvation Army or Goodwill stores.
He quietly shared his financial gains with many, many people and organizations over the years.
In 2003, he gifted 1,200 shares of Polaris stock (then worth about $100,000) to his alma mater, St. Olaf College, at Northfield, Minn. Yet only two weeks ago, he was lamenting the thought of spending money to travel to Florida this winter.
Miller was a lifelong bachelor with no immediate relatives but was never lonely. Once he met someone, he rarely forgot them and vice versa. Hudson, its people and descendents were his family. Look no further than the effusive tributes on the Star-Observer’s Web site this week.
Willis Miller the man may be gone, but his legacy of a rich historical record will live on forever.
—Steve Dzubay, publisher