Although he says he never planned to be a university president, Dr. J. Roger Miller ended up serving 20 years in that role – the longest presidential tenure in Millikin history – during a time of great growth and changes at the Big Blue.“When I first came to Millikin, I had no idea I would spend the rest of my career there,” Miller says
Miller came to Millikin in 1959 as head of the music education program and director of the marching band. One of his fondest Millikin memories happened during his first year.
At the time, marching band interest was at an all-time low, with only 40 members. Miller wanted to create excitement about the band, sohe considered the possibility of having the band perform at halftime of a Chicago Bears game. The team originated in Decatur as the Staley Bears, so Miller contacted August Staley, then president of Decatur’s Staley Manufacturing Company and son of the Staley Bears’ founder. That conversation led to a guaranteed spot in a Bears halftime show.
“I can’t believe I had the nerve to put such a small band together that quickly and perform at a Bears game — sometimes when you’re young you have more guts than common sense,” Miller says, looking back on that first year at Millikin.In 1960, Miller was named dean of the School of Music, followed by a promotion to vice president of academic affairs in 1966. Shortly thereafter, then-president Dr. Paul McKay became ill with terminal cancer, and Miller served as executive vice president during McKay’s illness. When McKay died in 1971 ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼Miller was named Millikin’s ninth president.
As president, Miller became known for hisplanning, creating a strategic plan for the ’70s and ’80s with a goal to carry Millikin through to the 21st century. In his planning, he says he left room for dreaming but still maintained realistic goals. He was dedicated to providing students with a liberal arts education as well as practical professional skills for careers, true to the model set by university founder James Millikin.Before retiring, Miller was interviewedfor the summer 1991 Quarterly, saying: “I told faculty on numerous occasions that I wasn’t interested in being second best, that we weren’t, and it was time to quit talking as if we were.”Miller maintained that attitude throughout his presidency and regularly worked to complete items from the strategic plan. As a result, Staley Library was built, along with a new student center and four new residence halls, and a $6 million renovation of Shilling Hall was completed. The James Millikin Scholars and the Presidential Scholars programs were created under Miller and also doubled in size during his tenure as president.“I was convinced that when all the pieces fell together, Millikin could become a truly outstanding small university,” Miller said in that 1991 interview. “As we began to realize that dream, I think each year my commitment to Millikin grew that much more.”
Miller had a reputation for being a very involved president, and he and his family were active on campus. His wife, Arlene, completed a second bachelor’s degree at Millikin, and led a life of hosting and attending events with her husband. She was also involved in the “Millikin Dames,” a former group of women faculty and wives who hosted social events and the annual holiday Cookie Party, still a tradition today.After his 1991 retirement, Miller remembers that his first action was to go out “for a nice steak dinner!” He notes that he retired a little earlier than he had intended but felt it was time. “I wanted to slow down the pace of my life and have time to be able to do relaxing things,” he says.“I was going to improve my golf game, but that never happened.”
The couple moved to Venice, Fla., and later settled in Durham, N.C., where they live today. Miller has been an active member of hiscommunity, serving as the chairman of the board of the Durham American Heart Association, as well as president of their retirement community. He also served on the board of directors for the Duke Institute for Learning in Retirement, where he both taught a course and completed several courses. The Millers also had the opportunityto travel to Argentina with their four children: Gregory ’72, Deborrah ’75, John and Charles ’84. They also have nine grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.
When asked how Millikin changed during his tenure, Miller asks, “How many days do you have?” He said that over the course of his total 32 years at the university, he was proud of the students and young faculty he watched develop and grow over the years. “I was proud to see the impact that Millikin has on people during their college years and the impact that it has on the Decatur community,” he says. “The quality of Millikin is always growing.”
One of the ways he demonstrated his pride and appreciation for Millikin was by creating an endowed award in his name given out at Honors Convocation each year. The award goes to a deserving senior with high scholarship who is involved on campus; the most recent recipient was Julia Smith ’12 from Chicago. Additionally, his legacy lives on with the couple’s creation of the Dr. and Mrs. J. Roger Miller Centennial Quad in the center of campus.Miller was most recently on campus in 2009 and plans to attend his granddaughter’s commencement in May. During that 2009 visit and seeing how campus had changed, he said, “I think that Millikin is a fabulous place. I’m thrilled with the things I see happening.”
Alexandra Miller '13 is a double major in Spanish and communication with a minor in international and global studies. A member of Pi Beta Phi and the senior class committee, she also works at the campus bookstore. Last fall, she interned for the alumni and development office and hopes to find a job in fundraising and development after graduation. Alex values her family ties to Millikin, has enjoyed her experience and knows that she is receiving a valuable education that will prepare her for a successful future.