Miller honored for $1 million-plus giftLongtime Star-Observer Publisher Willis H. Miller left a huge legacy last week. Miller, who died Nov. 16, 2008, at age 89, left $1,068,552 to UW-River Falls.
By: Doug Stohlberg, Hudson Star-Observer
Longtime Star-Observer Publisher Willis H. Miller left a huge legacy last week. Miller, who died Nov. 16, 2008, at age 89, left $1,068,552 to UW-River Falls. The gift was the largest in the school’s 135-year history.
The event was recognized by the university at a luncheon and press conference at the University Center Wednesday, Aug. 26.
The money will be used to establish endowed scholarships, giving preference to students from Hudson, North Hudson and their surrounding towns – Hudson, St. Joseph and Troy.
Among those on the luncheon program were UW-RF Chancellor Dean Van Galen, Interim President of the UW-River Falls Foundation Dan McGinty, personal representative of the Miller estate Bob McGrew, Miller estate attorney Bill Radosevich and UW-RF Foundation Board Chair Joe Boles.
“It’s a wonderful day for UW-River Falls,” said Chancellor Van Galen. “This is an act of amazing generosity. It’s the largest donation in our 135-year history and is a milestone for the university.”
Van Galen said the magnitude of the gift is tremendous.
“The impact on students will last for many years to coming, living on into perpetuity,” Van Galen said. “Students will become teachers, business leaders – the impact will be great indeed.”
“Mr. Miller’s uncommon generosity shows great faith in our university. Our commitment will be to ensure that we are good stewards of these resources and that we thoughtfully honor Mr. Miller’s wishes.”
Foundation Board Chair Boles said he looks forward to awarding the first student scholarships.
“Mr. Miller’s legacy will support leaders of tomorrow,” Boles said. “Who would have guessed in 1939 when Willis sat in a classroom at UW-River Falls that a seed would be sown that would become the largest bequest in the history of the university?”
Boles said that in talking to Miller’s friends it was obvious that he loved people and had a special place in his heart for young people.
“This gift reflects that sentiment,” Boles said.
Hudsonite McGrew said he came to Hudson in 1948 and was hired by Miller in 1953.
“While working together we became good friends,” McGrew said. “He soon named me as his executor.”
McGrew drew chuckles when he read a letter from Miller written in 1957 giving instructions for funeral arrangements. Among the instructions was a mandate that no more than $350 should be spent on Miller’s funeral.
“He relented in 1983, however,” McGrew said. “He changed the language to read “use good judgment.”
He said Miller spent Christmas brunch at the McGrew home for 53 years beginning in 1954.
“He was the most interesting conversationalist I ever knew,” McGrew said. “He had a passion for the newspaper, history, travel and education. I’m not sure what was on the top of the list, but based on his gift, education must have been pretty high.”
“In closing, a $1 million plus gift is not bad for a small-town newspaper editor.”
Hudson attorney Radosevich also reflected on Miller’s friendship and life.
“He was frugal but generous,” Radosevich said. “The lesson from his life was his charitable giving. He did it all his life, not just this one gift. His hand was always extended.”
He said Miller liked being with people and enjoyed meeting new people all his life. Radosevich said he had an “adventurous” spirit.
“He first planned to be a teacher and he never forgot the things he learned – although he wasn’t in the classroom, he remained a teacher all his life,” Radosevich said.
He noted, however, that money was not a big thing in Miller’s life.
“Helping people was his first priority. With this gift, his influence will continue forever and that’s what he wanted.”
At a brief press conference after the luncheon, Radosevich said the Miller gift was to UW-River Falls, but it is also a gift to the Hudson community since his instructions call for preference to Hudson School District students.
Miller was the former publisher of the Hudson Star-Observer and was well known in the St. Croix Valley region and beyond as a newspaperman, historian and philanthropist.
Over the years, Miller served UW-River Falls as a member of its Foundation Board of Directors and the now-defunct University Press Committee, where he worked with the late history Professor Walker Wyman and former Assistant Chancellor Wayne Wolfe. Both remained lifelong friends and enjoyed spending time in Mexico with Miller. He also donated numerous historical documents, including decades of his personal diaries and business papers, to the River Falls Area Research Center and UW-RF Archives as well as to state historical societies and the Library of Congress.
He was born in Iowa City on Nov. 28, 1918, and raised in Hudson. Although Miller graduated from St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., his connection to UW-RF started in 1939 when he took a class over summer break.
At St. Olaf College he was a member of the famed choir. He worked for the Norwegian-American Historical Association at the college, and graduated in 1940.
After college, Miller began his career with the Hudson Star-Observer. To supplement his income, he was a freelance reporter for the Milwaukee Sentinel and sang at funerals and for Western Union’s singing telegrams. He was well known for his column, “Along Our Street,” that ran for 40-plus years in the paper.
Eventually he became publisher and editor of the paper when he and a group of local investors purchased the newspaper in 1958 from Yvette Ward, wife of Brown & Bigelow President Charles A. Ward, who also lived in Hudson.
After selling the paper in the mid-1980s, he “retired” but continued part-time employment with the paper and wrote a weekly “Historic Hudson” column up until his death.
A founder of the St. Croix County Historical Society, Miller was known for his Hudson Biographical Index, a card catalog chronicling the city’s residents and a genealogical resource for researchers near and far. Miller was elected to the Wisconsin Newspaper Hall of fame in 2004, and a street in Hudson is named for him.
Miller died in Regions Hospital in St. Paul after suffering a stroke at home.
Miller’s gift surpasses an estate gift of $1,051,954 in 2007 from UW-RF alumna Lucile Spriggs.
His other estate gifts, totaling approximately $140,000, included the Education Foundation of Hudson, Hudson Area Library Foundation, St. Olaf College, the Wisconsin Historical Society, St. Croix County Historical Society, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Hudson Hospital Health Foundation, Christian Community Home and The Phipps Center for the Arts plus numerous community, arts and historical organizations and individuals.
After those amounts were paid, Miller’s will instructed that any remaining funds be bequeathed to UW-RF.
Representatives for the Miller estate include Hudson attorney William Radosevich, special administrator Thomas Evenson and personal representative Robert McGrew, all of Hudson.
As an endowment scholarship fund, the interest earned on the Miller endowment will be used to support scholarships.
Dan McGinty, interim executive director of the Office of University Advancement and UW-RF Foundation, said the foundation currently has a 4 percent spending policy, which would translate into approximately $40,000 awarded on an annual basis, he said. The exact dollar value and the number of scholarships have not yet been determined.