Mayor Dick Miller: Soldier, Executive,
Leader In Academe, Friend To Oneonta
Editor’s Note: This is a profile of Mayor Dick Miller that appeared in the Jan. 8, 2010, Hometown Oneonta, a few days after his swearing in.
By JIM KEVLIN
ONEONTA – The first 20-some years, “I was living in Nirvana.”
Dick Miller was raised in George Eastman’s golden Rochester, where Kodak’s 65,000 jobs were so good some people would routinely buy a new car every year when bonuses were issued.
His father, Richard P. Miller, Sr., was chief executive of the Community Chest – precursor of the United Way – and it was nation’s most successful, distributing the most money per capita at the lowest cost.
The family lived in Pittsford, which, if not quite rural, was pre-surburban.
After high school, Dick followed in his father’s footsteps to Middlebury, where he majored in sociology, perceiving it as the path of least resistance. One February, he skied every one of the 28 days at the college’s Sugar Loaf mountain.
He met his first wife, Barbara. The couple married in 1965, right out of college, and he went off to Fort Sill, Okla., to fulfill his two-year ROTC commitment.
He completed artillery school, and still fortune shone on him: He was appointed a training officer, still at Fort Sill, with little thought that, with Vietnam ramping up, officers would be needed to replace casualties.
So three months later, there he was, landing at Pleiku, bunking with the First Calvary Division in Ahn Khe’s tent city, and then it was into the jungle in charge of an artillery forward-observer unit for a 50-man rifle company.
Its mission during 28-day stints in the field was general but specific: Find the enemy, make contact with the enemy and maintain contact with the enemy. And, like the rest of the unit, “I lived in a poncho liner and ate sea rations.”
Attached to the company commander, his job was to call in artillery support, usually 105mm Howitzer fire, but sometimes from heavy Navy guns off the coast. And call it in he did, sometimes with a “split second” notice.
“I came out of it with the sense of no matter how bad things are, they could always be a lot worse,” said Miller, two days after his swearing-in as Oneonta’s mayor, sitting in the comfortable living room of the former frat house he and wife Andi renovated at 55 Maple after his retirement as Hartwick College president. A light snow was falling outside.
Since then, when he’s had to make a tough decision, he’ll ask, Am I going to lose my life? Is anyone going to lose their life? Are we going to see our families again?
“I refer to my year in Vietnam as my MBA; you get an understanding of how to get things done,” he said, adding, “I grew up in Nirvana.”
And to Nirvana he returned in 1967, choosing a sales job with Case Hoyt, a privately held, high-quality printing house in Rochester, over Kodak, which was simply too big.
As it happened, Case Hoyt did all the quality printing for Kodak. “We had a blue-chip name.” Quality begat quality, and the company over the years was able to attract Neiman Marcus and Tiffany catalogues, such magazines as Audubon, Gourmet, Architectural Digest, and the annual reports of more than 50 Fortune 500 companies.
His first boss was Bud Frame, the Gucci-wearing hail fellow well met, “everybody knew him.” But he learned an equally relevant approach from Bill Lodgek, who worked for Miller when he was promoted to marketing director.
They’d fly down annually to Dallas to renew the Neiman Marcus contract, arriving the night before for the noon meeting. Before retiring for the night, Lodgek “would grill us on every question they were going to ask.”
Meanwhile, he and Barbara were raising two boys, Matthew and Jacob, and there was Boy Scouts, Little League, Pop Warner, although Miller confesses to “spending too much time at the office.” He joined Oak Hill, the country club of his boyhood, and found himself on the boards of Rochester Telephone and Lincoln Rochester (now part of Chase.)
When Miller was president, Case Hoyt had plants in Atlanta, Chattanooga, two in Newport News, and three in Rochester. He oversaw the company’s sale to Bell Canada, continued on for a few years, than took what he calls his “copper parachute.”
He lined up some investors and was looking around for a company to buy when he got a call in 1987 from Dennis O’Brien, University of Rochester president: “You ought to think about coming here.”
And so he did, as vice president of external affairs – alumi relations, development, community relations – and “senior counsel to the president”; (since he wasn’t an attorney, “that really annoyed the lawyers locally.”)
“The university had drifted away from the community,” said Miller. The new president was gregarious, outgoing, curious, “he wanted to reconnect with the community.”
Dick Miller was O’Brien’s point man. His job was to get to know everybody. He plunged into the social, philanthropic and political life his his almost-native city. (He was born in Norfolk, Va., but his parents moved north when he was a few weeks old.)
In particular, Rochester was still recovering from the 1964 race riots that had shaken up Richard Sr.’s Community Chest priorities, and the son kept running into people who worked and fought with his father, like the Rev. Franklin D. Florence, now accompanied by his son.
Such as Urban League director Bill Johnson; Miller had to tell him the New Futures program Johnson was particularly wedded to would have to be dismantled. “He would yell at me for 45 minutes – terrible stuff. I would sit there and take it. At the end of 45 minutes, then he would say, ‘Now, what do we have to do?'”
After 13 years, Miller and his wife of 35 years were going their separate ways. The phone rang. It was Bob King, the former Monroe County executive who was working in the Pataki administration.
“Hey,” King told his friend in Rochester, “I just got named chief of the SUNY system. I don’t know anything about it. I need someone just like you.”
Why not? So the man who describes himself as a middling student went to Albany as vice chancellor and controller of the largest university system in the U.S.
His first self-assigned task: Visit all 64 SUNY campuses. Miller had never heard of anyone else doing that before Nancy L. Zimpher, the newest chancellor, arrived from Cincinnati last summer.
“My first year, tremendous learning,” he said. “My second year, trying to do something. My third year, abject frustration.”
Like Kodak 35 years before, the SUNY bureaucracy was just too big and complicated to accomplish much. So in 2003, when the phone rang again, this time a head-hunter looking for “someone just like you” for the presidency of troubled Hartwick College, the opportunity again seemed ideal.
Miller found an institution on the financial brink: “The college had lost half the value of its endowment, and enrollment went down simultaneously. It was a tough situation, but the people were so incredibly receptive and care so much about the college.”
The new president never doubted he could turn it around. Like Rochester, the old-time money, from IBM and the railroads, had left town, so Miller began courting the developing the alumni.
He inched up the enrollment from 1,400 to over 1,500 – generating new revenues within a margin that didn’t require additional expenditure. The endowment went from $45 million to $80 million.
And he courted Tom Golisano, the billionaire he knew from his Rochester days, who underwrote construction of Golisano Hall (and, while here, offered a $2.5 million matching grant to Springbrook.)
In 2007, age 65, recently married to Andi, he retired, and the couple – along with her twin sons, Rossco and Callum, now 17; and daughter Fable, now 14 – renovated a long-abandoned former fraternity house at 55 Maple St.
“I’ll never get my money out of it,” Miller said, citing one of the reasons he plans to live in Oneonta for the rest of his days.
Last spring found him itchy again, and he, Mayor John S. Nader and Caroline Lewis, the county economic developer, put together a city-county plan for another round of downtown revitalization.
When Nader was promoted to SUNY Delhi provost and decided he couldn’t hold both jobs, he looked around. Did Miller’s phone ring again? Or did they simply talk.
Regardless, Richard P. Miller, Jr., was sworn in as mayor of Oneonta, at noon on Jan. 1, 2010.
He pledged to begin his term at 7 a.m. that Monday, holding court at Center Street Deli.