S.D. historian Miller passes into history

John Kubal/Register: John Miller is shown in 2014 with his newly published “Small-Town Dreams: Stories of Midwestern Boys Who Shaped America.”

BROOKINGS – On April 30, longtime Brookings resident and South Dakota State University historian John Miller got up early and headed to EdgeBrook Golf Course. 

The manager of the course, Gary Moen, said, “He was a fixture out there every morning. He had 18 holes in before most people get out of bed.” Moen said they always talked about baseball, interviews he was doing with World War II veterans, and whatever research project he had currently brewing.

But early on that April morning, Miller made an ominous comment. The last thing he ever said to Moen was that “I just can’t hit the ball as far as I used to.” The next morning, May 1, as Miller was heading to EdgeBrook as dawn broke, he had a heart attack and died. He was 75 years old.

Thus ended an historic career and the life of a great gentleman and scholar who was a fixture around Brookings for five decades. Besides his home just off of Harvey Dunn Street and his old office in Scobey Hall, the place where Miller spent more time than any other was at Briggs Library.

Befitting an historian and bibliophile, Miller loved the library. SDSU librarian Kristi Tornquist remembers Miller as a “library friend, advocate and enthusiast. He was in Briggs Library nearly every day. It’s hard to imagine Briggs Library without him.” 

All the academic journals and the latest issues of the Atlantic and New Yorker and the New York Review of Books would get a workout from Miller. He’d photocopy up a storm (and usually send me a half-dozen clippings a month).

If it was Tuesday, Miller would leave the library to head to Taco John’s on the corner of Medary Avenue and Sixth Street to meet his friends for lunch. The “TJ’s Group” often discussed an article that Miller had photocopied at the library or begin discussing a book that they would later hold a public discussion on at Brookings Public Library. They also discussed, naturally, major league baseball and Jackrabbit sports.

Bob Burns, longtime chair of the political science department at SDSU, is a member of the TJ’s Group. Burns remembered how Miller liked to sneak in cookies for desert after the tacos were done. He said Miller never really retired from being a professor of history – he stopped formal teaching “only so he could follow his passion for history research and writing.”

Other members of the TJ’s Group included Larry Rogers, Mac Harris, and longtime SDSU biology professor Nels Granholm. 

“John was a good sport,” Granholm remembered, “both athletically and personally,” and they played softball and basketball together and debated who was the last .400 hitter in baseball. Granholm also praised Miller’s constant efforts to offer lifetime learning courses to the community.

I first met Miller in 1989 when I became a history and political science major at SDSU. Miller’s lectures were charged with energy and information, all spilling forth from bulky binders full of clippings and notes and reworked outlines embroidered with multicolored highlighting, arrows, boxes, and sundry reminders of various points to make. These lectures were never completed on time because there was simply too much to say.

About a week ago Miller and I were bantering over the phone about what chapters to include in volume 4 of our series on South Dakota political history titled “The Plains Political Tradition.” We also chatted at length about a new history of the Big Sioux River Valley I was editing. Miller was going to write a chapter about the Nobel Prize-winning SDSU graduate Theodore Schultz, a product of one of the valley’s small towns, Arlington, that Miller knew so well. Miller became our nation’s premiere expert on the structure and sociology of Midwestern small towns.  

Perhaps most importantly for the students of SDSU and for South Dakota at large was Miller’s leadership in the field of South Dakota history. He was well-known as Mr. South Dakota History, and he kept the field alive for decades. It was his essential work on topics ranging from farm movements, the paintings of Harvey Dunn, the writings of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Highway 14, to the history of the SDSU Campanile that filled out the story of our state and gave it texture and life.

The standard history of South Dakota was written by Herbert Schell, mostly during the 1950s. Miller tried to fix up the book by adding a few chapters to cover more recent decades, but he knew that more than minor surgery was needed. We discussed hundreds of times the desperate need for a new history of our state.

Miller’s passing can be our final reason to act. In honor of all his dedication to South Dakota, we should finally launch the project that results in a new and comprehensive history of South Dakota so that future generations know our heritage. We should dedicate this book to Miller.

In addition to this new book, we could bolster the history education requirements in our K-12 schools and mandate that every college student take at least two courses in American history (two classes out of 30 general education credit requirements is not too much to ask). The Legislature could package all of these reforms into the John E. Miller Historical Literacy Act.

If we don’t know our history, our country is in great peril. That is in part why Miller published a book titled “Democracy’s Troubles” only a few weeks ago. It was just another one of the major projects of a very active mind, produced between visits to Briggs Library, chats with the TJ’s Group, and early mornings at EdgeBrook.

Jon Lauck is a senior aide to U.S. Sen. John Thune, an adjunct professor of history and political science at the University of South Dakota, founding president of the Midwestern History Association, associate editor of the Middle West Review and author of several books, including The Lost Region: Toward a Revival of Midwestern History.

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