Randy's Ramblings: Willis H. Miller’s bequest was so like himI was a little surprised to learn that Willis H. Miller had a nest egg of $1 million-plus dollars. What he did with it didn’t surprise me at all.
By: Randy Hanson, Hudson Star-Observer
I was a little surprised to learn that Willis H. Miller had a nest egg of $1 million-plus dollars.
What he did with it didn’t surprise me at all.
Bill Radosevich, Willis’ longtime friend and attorney for his estate, recalled Willis’ frugality and generosity at the luncheon celebrating his large bequest to the University of Wisconsin-River Falls.
Bill related how Willis would sometimes worry about whether he had enough money to last him to the end.
On one occasion, after doing an analysis of Willis’ finances, Bill told him he was OK until the age of 156; then they’d have to make some adjustments.
That was the Willis I knew, too. When there was bad economic news, he’d say that it made him wonder if it was all going to last.
Willis enjoyed dining out. Many a morning, he’d give the crew here at the Star-Observer a report on a restaurant that he had dined at with Bill or other friends.
The food was almost always to his liking, as I recall. “But, gawd, it was expensive,” he would say.
His favorite restaurant, hands down, was Dibbo’s.
The prices were right at Dibbo’s, and he liked Bertha Fenner’s, Roxie Kopp’s and Linda Arneson’s home cooking.
“He loved the soup special,” Linda told me recently.
It didn’t matter if the soup was split pea, bean and bacon or chicken wild rice; or if the sandwich was ham salad or meatloaf, “he liked them all,” Linda said. “He was pretty easy to please.”
“Wonderful man,” were Linda’s first words to me when I told her I planned to write something about Willis. “He was a staple here. He was here every morning and every afternoon,” she said.
Waitresses Martha Hector and Roxie (she does double duty) usually knew what Willis wanted before he ordered. Often, there was room for a piece of banana cream or lemon meringue pie baked by Bertha or Roxie.
As Star-Observer office worker Maggie Hall has observed, Willis had a wide orbit. We at the newspaper office thought of him as our own but, in reality, we were only part of his constellation of friends.
I became better acquainted with Willis when we remodeled the news office a few years ago and he moved into the corner office a dozen feet down the hall from mine.
He’d be there working on an obituary, doing research or chatting with a friend when I arrived in the morning. Sometimes I’d plop down on his visitor’s chair and we’d shoot the breeze about the issues of the day.
I became well enough acquainted with Willis to know now that he had planned for a long time to leave the big endowment for UW-RF scholarships. I think his worry was that he would run out of money for his living expenses and have to dip into the million bucks he intended to go to young Hudson-area scholars.
Willis valued education. He knew that it enriches lives and breaks down intolerance and bigotry. He rarely said anything critical about anyone, but a bully or loud-mouth or Pharisee could annoy him.
I suspect that his short stature encouraged his sensitivity to outsiders and underdogs.
Charlie Ward was an influence, too.
Willis adored Charlie, the larger-than-life president of Brown & Bigelow printing company who made him the editor of the Star-Observer when he bought the newspaper in 1952. Willis became the publisher and editor when Ward sold the paper to him and a group of investors in 1958.
Ward had followed the gold rush to Alaska, been a mate on a Pacific Ocean freighter, served as a quartermaster in Pancho Villa’s army and spent time in Leavenworth for drug possession (a charge he always maintained he was innocent of). He also was a champion of the little guy – and not just Willis.
An eight-page spread in the Sept. 5, 1938, Saturday Evening Post about Ward’s support of the Progressive Party came under the headline, “The third party gets a rich uncle.”
Willis’ frugality influenced his choice of UW-RF for the endowment, I believe.
A graduate of pricey St. Olaf College himself, Willis knew that UW-RF provides a good bang for the buck when it comes to education. (As a UW-Eau Claire grad, I believe the same is true for the University of Wisconsin System as a whole.)
The current tuition and fees for a full year at UW-RF are about $6,500, compared to an average tuition of $29,506 at Minnesota private colleges, according to a recent story in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.
The decision to give preference to young people from Hudson, North Hudson and the towns of Hudson, St. Joseph and Troy in awarding the scholarships underscores Willis’ love for his community.
His travels were extensive – but there was no question of where his loyalty lay. His love for Hudson and its people was deep and abiding. It’s evidenced in the body of work he left behind and the generous ongoing gift to our children.
“If only more people could understand that life is not about the amount of money one has, or how many things they can buy, but it is about who one is as a person and what one does for others that measures how good of a life a person has lived,” John S. commented after reading of Willis’ bequest on www.hudsonstarobserver.com.
I agree with John S. It’s what Willis’ rich life teaches us.
In a day of so much small self-centeredness, Willis was a big and noble man.