University of Wisconsin-River Falls
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Winter 2010

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Wednesdays with Willis

A historic $1.07 million gift to UWRF recalls Willis Miller’s past, passions and patronage

By Brenda K. Bredahl

Willis Miller
Willis with John Raleigh, owner of Rivers Edge Supper Club, Somerset (2007), appeared in a Chicago Tribune story by Brenda Bredahl..

Every Wednesday for a decade, Archivist Tim Ericson would wait at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls Chamber Davee Library loading dock at 5 p.m.

Like clockwork, a compact car driven by Willis Miller, then publisher and editor of the Hudson Star Observer, would arrive. Out hopped Miller, who at 5’2” was a pillar of the Hudson community. He was delivering his weekly newspaper to neighboring newsstands, and the University Archives and Area Research Center was a regular stop.

miller as a boy

Miller as a boy.

 

Friends Near and Far

Many of Willis Miller’s friends attended a luncheon in his honor hosted by the UWRF Foundation in August. At the Hudson Star Observer, Miller worked with Bob McGrew, and he and his wife, Lorraine, were among Miller’s closest friends over the years. McGrew fondly recalled Willis’ life and friendship at the luncheon.

Harriet Christianson, a 1939 UWRF graduate, met Willis (whom she called Bill) and a few friends every Wednesday for dinner for as long as she can remember: “I know he was so proud that he was able to give to education because that was always foremost in his mind—that people had to get educated.”

Doug Stohlberg, editor of the Hudson Star Observer, worked side-by-side with Miller for 35 years: “Willis was always the champion for a person who had to fight a little harder in life, and I really think he felt that he could touch a lot of lives helping students from the Hudson area to attend River Falls.”

miller with press

Willis interviewing Yvette Ward, then Star Observer publisher/owner (1953).

Tom Evenson, owner of a Hudson plumbing and repair business and a 60-year friend, said: “Willis was honest, sincere, hardworking and dependable. He was straightforward and that was refreshing.“

Darryl Youngberg, a supporter of the UWRF Foundation and retired banking executive, noted: “Willis literally was ‘Hudson’ for all those years. He was a very inquisitive guy and had a thirst for learning.”

Miller collected for numerous history organizations around the state, region and beyond, as his hobby was to scour thrift stores, flea markets, household sales and estate auctions for materials relevant to the past.

“A big piece of the University Archives is, really, Willis Miller,” says Ericson, who worked at UWRF from 1974 to 1984 and recently returned as interim archivist. “If you take a look at the online catalog for the Miller collection alone, you’ll see a lot about the man, his life’s work and his passions. And the rest of the collections have been greatly enriched from what Willis donated over the years relating to the region. He had an unusually keen eye for collection development.”

An Ageless Acumen

Miller—loved by friends and acquaintances far and wide for his wit, wisdom and generosity—died in a St. Paul hospital on Nov. 16, 2008, just 12 days before his 90th birthday. He left $1,070,647 to the UWRF Foundation—the largest gift in its 61-year history—to establish endowed scholarships for students from the Hudson area.

The interest on his gift is estimated to fund about 16 $2,500 annual scholarships for perpetuity, essentially helping hundreds of students over the decades.

“He is someone who was very intelligent and believed in education,” says Joe Boles, president of the UWRF Foundation Board. “He had a great education himself and was grateful for that. And it’s a wonderful thing that he thought enough about UW-River Falls and its mission to give a gift like this.”

Within days of his death, the spry newspaperman had reported to work at the Hudson Star Observer, as he had for the past 68 years. As an ad salesman, reporter, columnist, editor, publisher, owner, historian or obituary writer, Miller had persisted through several sales of the company, “retiring” twice.

“He was 25 years older than me, but he was so contemporary in thought, so his age was irrelevant,” says Bill Radosevich, one of Miller’s “breakfast club” who met at the Dibbo’s Café in Hudson almost every day since Radosevich arrived in Hudson as a young attorney in the 1960s.

“One of my most memorable moments with Willis was a few years ago,” recalls Radosevich. “I was driving him back from his first hospitalization, and he was reminiscing about his life. What struck me was his wonderful attitude—living a life of no regrets. He said if his life ended then and there, he would be eternally thankful for the friendships and experiences that he had.” 

A Generous Legacy

During the Great Depression Miller attended St. Olaf College, where he sang in its famed choir. He enrolled in a summer class at River Falls State Teacher’s College in 1939 while back home in Hudson. He struggled financially, and through a National Youth Administration scholarship, help from a St. Olaf faculty member, and a job with the college’s Norwegian-American Historical Association, he completed his degree at St. Olaf in 1940.

Although trained as a teacher, he declined a position in North Dakota and took a job selling advertising for the Minneapolis Tribune. City life didn’t suit him, so he returned to Hudson to work for the local newspaper.

An avid reader, writer and researcher, he wrote more than a dozen monographs and books, mostly about local history. His meticulous Hudson Area Biographical Index, housed at the Hudson Star Observer and the St. Croix County Historical Society, includes information on 200,000 residents gleaned from area newspapers from the early 1900s to shortly before his death. He cofounded the St. Croix County Historical Society, and he’s made a mark on dozens more community organizations. For 27 years he served on the city’s Housing Authority, including 16 years as president/chairman, and a Hudson street carries his name. In 1995, he was inducted to the Hudson High School Wall of Fame.

Miller had a lifelong friendship with Marion Hawkins, a high school classmate and a UWRF alumna who became a UWRF English professor. Miller also became involved with UWRF Foundation press committee with Emeriti Professors Walker Wyman and Wayne Wolfe. The Foundation Press published many books and pamphlets by Wyman and others, but ceased publication in the 1980s.

“I met Willis in 1955, shortly after we arrived in River Falls,” recalls Wayne Wolfe. “The three of us were really kind of an unofficial committee interested in preserving history and folklore. He was really a lot of fun.”

Miller’s legacy extends beyond Hudson. He served as president of the St. Olaf College Alumni Association, and he established endowed scholarships at St. Olaf. In 2004, he was named to the Wisconsin Newspaper Hall of Fame, and in 2001, he received the Distinguished Service Award of the Federation of Genealogical Societies. His philanthropy touched dozens of educational, historical, cultural and health care organizations in the region and beyond.

“I hope UWRF students will take the time to learn about the life of this man,” said Radosevich. “There’s a treasure trove of information about Willis at UWRF—his papers, diaries, letters and many other materials. They will learn that it’s more than about the scholarship; it is an approach to living life and an enthusiasm for learning that never stopped, even up until his last day. That type of spirit is what’s important.”

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